Steven C. Day's "The Last Chance Democracy Cafe"
February 17, 2005
|STEVEN C. DAY'S ARCHIVES|
During our first 29 episodes, weíve often discussed why the proposals of the Religious Right represent bad public policy. But could it be that theyíre also bad religion?
Last Chance Democracy Café
Religion entered my life in much the same way agriculture enters the life of a farm child; I was born into it. My father was a minister with the United Church of Christ, a denomination thatís been in the news lately as a result of the refusal of NBC and CBS to run one of its ads. The commercial in question features two burly bouncers outside a church, refusing admission to various people, including a gay couple. The text then states: "Jesus didnít turn people away, neither do we." According to the brain trusters at the two networks (and some others), this constituted impermissible "advocacy advertising." UCC has a complaint pending against NBC and CBS before the FCC.
Back in the 1960s, when I put in my stint as a PK (dad later became a college professor), the United Church of Christ was already known as a liberal denomination. Liberal in the theological sense: We rooted for the Clarence Darrow and not the William Jennings Bryan character when watching Inherit the Wind. And liberal in the political sense: The church was wholeheartedly behind the civil rights movement and most of the clergy opposed the Vietnam War.
Thus, my first breath of religion came by way of a liberal breeze. I thought that was what religion was supposed to be Ė advocacy and support for human beings as service to God.
It wasnít that I was opposed to it. More like Dick Cheney and the Vietnam War: I just had other priorities.
* * *
As Molly dropped off the eveningís first round of drinks at the large round table, I noticed Zach seemed a little nervous. At first, I thought it might be due to the weather. It was one of those deceptive February evenings Ė not bad in reality, with at most two inches of snow on the ground, but a brisk southerly wind puffing it up to look like a blizzard.
But it wasnít the weather that was unnerving Zach. It was Ned. Ned (mentioned very briefly in episode 10) has been a pal of mine for over 25 years; heís also my minister, to the extent I have one. He drops by the café every two or three weeks for lunch; this was his first evening visit. It had taken months of egging, but I had finally convinced him to come by to see the wise men in action. I thought heíd find it a hoot.
Zach was nervous, I realized, over the fact Ned was a minister.
"Ned," I said, "please tell young Zach here that youíre not going to rat him out to God over drinking in a bar."
Ned smiled. "Well, if I were to do that Iíd have to explain what Iím doing here myself, wouldnít I?" Ned flicked his glass of chardonnay with his finger.
"So you donít consider drinking a sin?" Zach smiled weakly.
"No. Although, if you drink too much, it can cause liver damage."
"And thatís a sin . . . right? Damaging the body God gave you?"
"Well, I donít know if Iíd go that far. Itís a stupid and destructive thing to do, for certain, and, obviously, alcoholics need help, but Iím not sure Iíd call it a sin . . ."
"Of course, if you damage your liver badly enough, eventually youíll turn yellow, which means that youíll look like SpongeBob. Now, thereís a sin!"
Everyone at the table laughed, but Zach still seemed ill at ease.
Horace asked him, "Zach, do I remember correctly that your family didnít go to church much while you were growing up?"
"Well . . . no, but we do believe in God, and all that." Zachís voice was a little defensive.
Horace grinned encouragingly. "Whether you do or you donít go to church is entirely your own business. I just wanted to see if my guess is correct that most of your contact with religion has . . . well, let me just ask it out right: Would you say that most of your exposure to preachers has come from watching the ones on television?"
"Yeah, I suppose thatís true."
"The thing you need to understand then . . . and itís something an awful lot of folks donít know, is that TV preachers donít represent the entire Christian religion in the United States. In fact, there are a lot of denominations out there filled with people who hold guys like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in just as much contempt as do the people at this table. Christianity isnít fungible: One religious organization isnít just like another. For example, youíve got Religious Right heartthrob James Dobson, the head dude at the so-called Focus on the Family, accusing the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon character of trying to secretly advance some sort of homosexual agenda . . ."
Ned jumped in. " . . . while at the same time, the United Church of Christ, the denomination I minister for, has ridiculed Dobsonís position. In fact, you should check out the UCCís homepage some time. Thereís a hilarious photo diary posted there of SpongeBobís visit to UCC headquarters."
Horace began again, "Thatís the problem with the current media fascination with trying to divide Americans into two neat little groups -- religious and secular. You canít do that. You canít just look at whether someoneís, quote, a believer, close quote. You also have to look at what it is they believe."
* * *
My first real contact with Christian fundamentalists, at least where religion was discussed, came in college. They were known as Jesus Freaks -- although their pitch never seemed to me to have much to do with the Jesus of Nazareth Iíd studied in Sunday school. Like all fundamentalists, the Jesus Freaks took every word in the Bible to be literally true -- the big fish really did eat Jonah and all that.
There was a familiar dance to their approach: It always began with these words: "Iíd like to share with you something thatís been very important in my life." This was quickly followed by the ever dependable story of personal depravity: "I used to be into drugs and sex and pornography . . . but then I found Jesus." Finally, if you stuck around long enough, out would come the hell talk. Jesus Freaks loved to talk about hell. And they especially liked talking about how, if you werenít careful, you were going to end up in hell.
I sometimes tried to draw them into a theological debate. But the resulting discussions proved consistently disappointing, at least in terms of any meaningful exchange of ideas. They usually went pretty much like this example from the actual transcript of the Scopes trial:
(Clarence Darrow questioning William Jennings Bryan)
Q--The Bible says Joshua commanded the sun to stand still for the purpose
of lengthening the day, doesn't it, and you believe it?
* * *
Q-- Now, Mr. Bryan, have you ever pondered what would have happened
to the earth if it had stood still?
While, thanks in part to a sympathetic playwright, history records that Darrow creamed Bryan during his cross-examination, it would actually be more accurate to say the two men simply talked past each other. Darrow argued logic and science, while Bryan professed faith; and thereís no way for logic or science to trump faith in the eyes of the fundamentalist, because fundamentalism, by its nature, holds itself accountable to neither. If a doctrine of religious faith is contrary to the laws of science, the fundamentalist response is: So what? God always has the prerogative to bend those laws. Indeed, itís the very act of the bending that creates the miracle.
The problem, of course, is that not all faith is true or, for that matter, even wise. And when people try to transform their religious faith into proposed governmental policies, thereís no way to put that faith to the test, or even to rationally debate it. And rational debate is the lifeblood of democracy.
* * *
Zach was fidgeting with his hands. I think the whole subject of religion made him nervous. "So howíd we get started talking about religion, anyway?" he smiled uneasily.
Horace replied, "Well, at first we were just trying to put you at ease over Ned being a minister. Let you know he isnít Pat Robertson . . . that heís just one of the guys. But now that weíre on the subject . . ."
"Now that weíre on the subject," interjected Tom, "the truth is that itís kind of hard to talk about politics today without also talking about religion."
"Actually," agreed Horace, "religion, and in particular conservative fundamentalist religion, is probably playing a larger role in our political process today than at any other time in the nationís history."
Zach asked, "And thatís bad, right? I mean, because of the Separation of Church and State?"
Horace breathed in slowly, methodically, almost like he was puffing on an expensive cigar. Then he said, "Yes, I think whatís going on today in terms of the degree to which the Religious Right is interjecting religion into politics is a bad thing, but you really canít say that as an absolute. Religion can have a proper place in politics."
"Really?" Zach sounded surprised.
"You have to remember, I grew up in the civil rights movement . . ."
" . . . and religion was a big part of that movement. Martin Luther King was a preacher and he wasnít afraid to quote scripture in support of the cause. His famous ĎI Have a Dreamí speech referred, after all, to Ďall Godís children.í In fact, churches formed the backbone of the civil rights movement and many people, both black and white, were driven to the movement by their faith."
"So are you saying that what the religious right is doing today is no different?"
Horace smiled softly, then patted Zach on the back. "Do I look like a moron?"
"Of course not . . ."
"Good. Glad to hear it. Because only a moron would say that. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and the rest of their bunch have no more in common with Martin Luther King than a mosquito has with a phlebotomist working for the Red Cross. True, they both deal with the same general subject matter, but there the similarity most assuredly ends."
Ned spoke up. "Zach, what Horace is saying . . . or at least what I think heís saying is that the issue of Separation of Church and State isnít as clean cut as saying that religious faith must be completely removed from the political process. Itís perfectly proper for people to pursue political change because their religious faith tells them to, whether that means fighting poverty and injustice . . . or for that matter, while I personally donít agree with it, fighting to end all abortions."
"But . . . and itís one very big but," added Horace, "when people advocate faith motivated policies in the political process, they have an obligation to do so based upon secular arguments . . . arguments that apply equally to believers and nonbelievers. To simply argue, in effect, this is what my religious faith tells me, so take it or leave it is . . . well, itís un-American, plain and simple."
"Amen!" said Ned loudly. "And when we talk about secular arguments, we mean ones that are made in good faith, not make believe nonsense like the so-called Intelligent Design theory offered by the Religious Right as an alternative to Darwinís Theory of Natural Selection . . . Or take abstinence only sex education . . ."
"Please!" shouted Winston.
"Perfect," said Ned.
* * *
Now that I find myself well into the crotchetiness of middle age (why wait to enjoy the best part of old age?), my attitude toward fundamentalists has become more nuanced. I now realize that like cholesterol, insects and Golden Retrievers there are both "good" and "bad" fundamentalists. Well, okay, there are no bad Golden Retrievers, but the pointís still valid: Fundamentalist Christians come in all shapes and sizes. As corny as it sounds, some of my best friends really are active members of fundamentalist churches. And, to the best of my knowledge, not a one of them has ever sacrificed a single toad, frog or Toll House Cookie.
We disagree on religion, of course, and, if the truth be told, my fundamentalist friends probably believe that some day I may end up in hell. But at least they donít seem as pleased about it as those Jesus Freaks of my youth.
But if Iím now somewhat more tolerant of religious fundamentalism than I once was, tolerance ends at the governmentís door. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which created the Separation of Church and State (and donít be mislead by the Religious Rightís propaganda -- separation is precisely what the Founders intended), may well have been the single most important contribution they made to the long term success of democracy in America. It must be defended. Itís important to remember, however, nothing in the Establishment Clause prohibits people from discussing religious values as part of the political process. We may not like it -- we may even rightfully denounce it as hypocritical -- but the fact is that if George W. Bush wants to invoke Godís name in every other sentence he speaks, there isnít a damn thing we can do about it.
But George W. Bush and the Religious Right donít own God. And they donít own the subject of values.
* * *
"Zach, have you ever heard of Jim Wallis?" asked Horace.
Zach said he hadnít.
"Heís an evangelical Christian whoís starting to get a lot of attention as a representative of the Religious Left. While lots of people have attacked Religious Right nutcases like Robertson and Falwell from a secular standpoint, Wallis attacks their theology. He believes theyíve badly distorted the teaching of the Bible by trying to reduce Christianity to just two issues, abortion and gay marriage. He asks, for example, whereís the commitment to fighting poverty, which is, after all, a subject thatís discussed much more extensively in the Bible, and especially the New Testament, than either of the religious rightís two pet issues."
"Iíve wondered about that myself," said Zach. "A lot of what guys like Falwell say, seems . . . I guess it seems kind of unchristian."
I nodded at Ned. "See, I told you heís a smart kid."
Horace pushed ahead. "Wallis thinks the Democratic Party . . . and liberals in general have made a big mistake by largely surrendering the discussion of values to the far right. But note, heís not saying, as Joe Lieberman often seems to argue, liberals need to adopt the same values as conservatives. Heís saying, instead, that liberals should fight to recapture the values debate by reframing it in ways highlighting liberal principles such as fighting poverty, economic fairness, environmental protection and the defense of individual liberties."
"Now, I donít agree with Wallis on everything . . . especially his advice that Democrats downplay their support for abortion rights. But I do think heís right when he says itís possible to frame the debate, on even that issue, more effectively."
Zach drained the last of his beer. Then he asked, "So are you saying liberals should talk about religion all the time the way Bush does?"
"Good God, no! That would be stupid, especially for liberals who are not particularly religious. The idea here isnít to add yet another layer of hypocrisy to the process. But that doesnít mean we shouldnít speak in terms of values. In terms of whatís moral, and of whatís right. Itís all about framing, as George Lakoff puts it. We need to make it clear, for example, that we donít favor protecting the environment just Ďcause. Weíre fighting to protect it, in large part, because passing a clean environment on to our children is the morally correct thing to do. The same is true all across the waterfront of liberal positions, from supporting increased aid to education, to fighting to protect civil liberties. As Wallis says, most progressive issues are inherently values issues. We just need to learn to talk the talk."
"And one other thing needs to happen," said Ned in a slow thoughtful voice. "Those of us in the Religious Left need to start speaking up more . . . like Wallis is doing. We need to start taking back Christianity from the people whoíve been abusing it." Nedís voice was becoming tense, almost angry. "I mean, look whatís going on right now. We have the Religious Right advocating the privatization of Social Security! The single most successful poverty reduction program in the history of the nation, and these so-called Christians want to destroy it! Just like they favor tax cuts for the rich, even when that means taking food out of the mouths of hungry children."
Ned shook his head in disgust. "Then, of course, we have the self-professed Christian president taking us to war . . . killing thousands upon thousands of people based upon a lie. A lie! And he has the temerity to imply that God told him to invade. So did God also tell him to spread a bunch of lies so the killing could begin? Well, I for one am sick of it. Whether we like it or not, thereís a holy war going on in this country. They started it, and itís damn well time we started fighting back."
"From your mouth to Godís ears," said Tom.
Horace shook his head. "No, we canít expect God to do our work for us. This is one weíre going to have to win ourselves."
Winston had the final word: "In that case, I guess thereís nothing left to say except, to borrow the words of our Fearless Leader, "Bring it on."
* * *
Coming next episode at The Last Chance Democracy Café: Some Religious Nuts Really Are Nuts.
* * *
Read all the "The Last Chance Democracy Cafe" episodes in the archives.
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001