Saturday, January 17, 2015

God’s Politics

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 5, 2006

In the old days of the Massachusetts Commonwealth (the real old days when we actually had a state church, and the Minister of the First Parish in a town also served as its superintendent of schools and protector of public morals [scary thought that, isn’t it?]), a tradition developed whereby a leading member of the state’s clergy would address the legislature after each election. The so-called “Election Sermon” was intended to pull elected representatives’ eyes from the temporal and earthly concerns on which they were often so focused, and set them on higher, moral dimensions. Over time, the legislature stopped inviting clergy to preach before them (maybe they didn’t like what they were hearing), so instead many ministers maintained the tradition of the “election sermon” by reflecting upon the moral agenda facing the community on the Sunday before each election. In these sermons, they would infer, rather heavy-handedly at times, for whom their congregants ought to be voting in the upcoming balloting.
Now, rest assured I don’t intend to do that this morning. It’s none of my business for whom you vote, just as it’s none of your business for whom I will be voting on Tuesday-- or for which party I will be rooting to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives (and maybe even the Senate!). To most of you, I’m sure, there’s precious little mystery (or interest for that matter) in that particular question anyway. So, as someone who appreciates individual freedom of belief in matters both political and religious—and who also appreciates recent regulations issued by the Internal Revenue Service on the subject—I have no intention of telling you for whom to vote on Tuesday. Never have, and never will…
So, while I’m glad that we’ve moved beyond the more constrictive view of the “Election Sermon” (and while I really am glad that I’m not empowered to be “protector of public morals” any longer), nevertheless, I think it is good to consider from time to time the moral dimension of some of the political issues we face—the place our faith holds in our lives as citizens.
Certainly, this is hardly an obscure issue. Religion was a huge factor in the 2004 presidential election. On the Republican side, President Bush talked comfortably and frequently about his personal faith and based his campaign largely on what religious conservatives call the “moral issues”. On the Democratic side, Senator Kerry invoked the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan; talked about the importance of loving our neighbors; quoted the epistle of James that “faith without works is dead”; even quoted Abraham Lincoln’s famous declaration that the important thing is not to believe that God is on our side, but to pray humbly that we are on God’s side.
But frankly, Kerry never seemed as comfortable talking about religion as Bush did. (Frankly, John Kerry seldom seems comfortable talking about most things, in my opinion.) Other Democrats did even worse: as when Howard Dean, an otherwise very bright man I think—he’s a doctor, after all-- told a reporter that his favorite part of the New Testament was the book of Job—which is in the Old Testament, of course (even we know that). And why on earth Job would be anyone’s favorite anything, I can’t figure; it’s like saying a trip to the dentist is your favorite form of recreation.
This “discomfort” that many liberals have with politics in the public sphere has led some people to jump to the conclusion that liberals just don’t like religion very much—that they have very little use for it—that they may even “hate” religion and everything it stands for—that they are, in the words of that right wing political harlot, Ann Coulter, “Godless”—and want to exchange their own elitist, state-ist, welfare-ist, “Church of Liberalism” for those good old Judeo-Christian, God-fearing, Jesus-loving values on which this great country of ours was founded.
Now, I will confess that I have not read Coulter’s most recent book, Godless. Indeed, I’ve never read any of her books; there are limits as to what I’ll spend my relatively hard-earned money on, even for 75-cents plus postage from (Indeed, rather than buying her books, I make it a point to hide them every time I see one on a shelf at Stop & Shop or Barnes & Noble, usually behind the kitty liter. I guess that old instinct as “protector of public morals” comes out sometimes.)
Ann Coulter is an absolutely awful woman. This is the same woman, I would remind you, who said of 9/11 widows: “I’ve never seen people enjoying their husbands’ deaths so much.” She even suggested that some of them should pose for Playboy magazine. This is the woman who suggested that the only question about how to deal with President Bill Clinton was “whether to impeach him or assassinate him”; who said that someone should “poison” Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens; and of Rhode Island’s Senator Lincoln Chafee (poor Linc Chafee, nobody seems to love him; and really, he’s a very moderate political figure and as innocuous as a Republican could be), that “someone shot the wrong Lincoln.” (She also called Senator Chafee a “half wit” and a “silver-spooned moron”, but that has become standard political discourse, on the right and on the left, these days. You can pick your own “silver-spooned moron” I suppose.)
In her latest book, Godless (subtitled “The Church of Liberalism”) Coulter (who does not attend church regularly herself, apparently) screeches that liberals are an atheistic lot who have devised a substitute religion, replete with the sacraments of abortion, feminism, homosexuality, coddling of criminals, and even bestiality. Liberals also have as their bearded and imposing god not Yahweh, but rather, Charles Darwin. This left-wing “church”, Coulter drones on and on, is the root cause of every ill afflicting our society, and their “god” (Darwin, that is) is responsible for a host of historical atrocities from Hitler to Stalin and a whole bunch of other really evil guys.
Now, all of this balderdash would not deserve a response were it not for the fact that some people (a good number of people, really) actually buy it. They believe this nonsense about the “immorality” of liberalism, and how it flies in the face of our tradition’s most sacred values. Certainly, the public perception is (or at least, was, until quite recently) that in matters of faith and morality, the religious right seemed to have the waterfront pretty well covered.
And that perception, to me, as a denizen of the religious and (I’ll admit it) political left is quite distressing. It’s distressing because it does violence to our history. It denies and denigrates the faith of many of us. And it just isn’t helpful to us as a nation, as a people, as we seek to coexist with others in this world (a dangerous world), and seek, somehow, to meet some of the unmet challenges which our times ask of us.
So, for those reasons, I think, Coulter’s claptrap deserves an answer. But better not to answer it in kind (though I think I already did). Better, I think, to offer a higher road, a more excellent way. Such a way is found in another book that appeared not too long ago, a book called God’s Religion written by the Protestant evangelical minister and publisher Jim Wallis. A book sub-titled, interestingly enough: “Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.”
In his book, Our Endangered Values, America's Moral Crisis, former President Jimmy Carter—a deeply religious evangelical Christian himself-- states that the "most important factor" causing the polarization of American politics (the great “red/blue divide”) is that “fundamentalists have become increasingly influential in both religion and government, and have managed to change the nuances and subtleties of historic debate into black-and-white rigidities and the personal derogation of those who dare to disagree. At the same time, President Carter writes, “these religious and political conservatives have melded their efforts, bridging the formerly respected separation of church and state. This has empowered a group of influential neo-conservatives, who have been able to implement their long-frustrated philosophy in both domestic and foreign policy.” This, according to Saint Jimmy, has brought about "profound departures from America's traditional values" like political pluralism, respect for one another’s religions, our sense of cohesiveness and the obligation we have to take care of the less fortunate, and multi-lateralism in foreign affairs. (These things might all seem like “liberal” values now, but they were simply mainstream, American values a generation ago. That is how far our national politics has moved to the right.)
In an exit poll following the 2004 presidential election, 22% of voters stated that “moral values” was the most important factor they used in deciding for whom to vote. (This was the leading response from a list that also included the war in Iraq, terrorism, health care, education, taxes, and the economy.) Of those who cited “moral values” as their chief criterion, 80% said they voted for George W. Bush. How did the Republicans become the party of morality? Or, as Rev. Wallis writes: “When did Jesus become pro-war?” “When did Jesus become pro-rich?” “When did Jesus become a selective moralist?”
It happened, in the minds of some at least (and increasingly, sadly, in the “public” mind—that “mass mind” fueled by who can get the easiest to digest, uncomplicated sound bytes into the popular, commercial media) when, as Carter says, “modern fundamentalism made the move to theocracy”. Fundamentalists of all kinds “desire their religious agendas to be enforced through the power of the state,” Wallace states. This is no less true of Christian fundamentalists in Alabama or Texas than it is of the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Shiite clerics in Iran. But such a rigid position is a serious betrayal of the biblical tradition in which the three great monotheistic faiths of the West—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are rooted. In God’s Politics, Wallis offers a dynamic alternative view: a view which rescues the Judeo-Christian tradition from the clutches of narrow-minded, militarist right wing idealogues.
Jim Wallis believes that any critical and active religious faith must concern itself with public policy—that there is, indeed, a biblical imperative to make the world a better place, and to meet society’s unmet needs. Just as, earlier in our history, people of faith led the struggles against slavery, for woman’s suffrage, in favor of the rights of workers—just as, in our own day, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—“with the Constitution in one hand and a Bible in the other”—led the non-violent Civil Rights revolution that redeemed our nation—so do our religious values call upon us to speak out on the issues of our day. The question is not whether we should, Wallis says, but how.
What holds many of us on the religious and/or political left back, Jim Wallis believes, is that many liberals are fundamentalists, too: secular fundamentalists. Often, through our own namby-pambiness on matters religious, and our extreme sense of political correctness, and our being so careful to include everyone, and not offend anyone, and weighing and measuring every particular viewpoint, people of the left (and, as I said, our politics has moved so far to the right that what used to be called “the center” is now called “the left”) sometimes appear as though they, themselves, don’t really believe in anything. Against the burning hot fires of the religious right, we offer the most lukewarm and innocuous bromides about celebrating diversity, and everyone being entitled to his/her opinion, and the need for all of us just to “get along”. In our zeal to be “inoffensive”, we help to spread Ann Coulter’s poison that the left is “Godless” and that we believe in nothing when it comes to matters of faith.
According to Jim Wallis, too often secular fundamentalists “attack all political figures who dare to speak from religious convictions. From the Anti-Defamation League to Americans United for Separation of Church and State to the ACLU and some of the Left’s most religion-fearing publications,” Wallis writes, “a cry of alarm has gone up in response to anyone who has the audacity to be religious in public. These secular skeptics,” he continues, “often display an amazing lapse of historical memory when they suggest that religious language in politics is contrary to the ‘American ideal’. The truth is just the opposite.”
Oftentimes, we might feel puny and weak compared with the challenges this world faces-- puny Davids against mighty Goliaths of corruption, greed, selfishness, and injustice; puny Davids, with the Goliath of religious fundamentalism on one side, and the Goliath of this mad materialist, hedonist, consumerist, godless culture on the other. Why even bother to fight? Why even bother to vote? Why even bother to venture out into the civic playing field? Why even bother to hope?
Remember how Goliath greeted David when he first saw him and his slingshot? “Who are you?” he probably shouted. “Who are you to think you can fight me?” “Who in the heck are you,” the giant taunts the little squirt standing before him with a slingshot. “Who in the heck are you to think you can do battle with me, the great giant, the great Goliath?”
But, my friends, simply remember who wins that particular battle, and who is lying face down on the ground when the dust clears.
Wonders still this old world of ours shall witness. Wonders this world shall witness because, as Barack Obama said, “We have an awesome God in the blue states, too!” But this old world of ours will witness only those wonders we are bold and daring enough to bring about with the full engagement of our hands and hearts and imagination and wisdom. There are still a lot of Goliaths that need bringing down in this world of ours. May we join with men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit the world over —whatever their religion, whatever their faith, whatever their creed-- to bring down these false idols, one by one-- and to construct stone by stone, and circle by circle, the new heaven and new earth of which we all dream. 

No comments:

Post a Comment