Saturday, October 07, 2006

The view from the Christian Right

Demetrius and I attended First Friday at the local Unitarian Universalist church last night. On the first Friday of every month, there is a potluck followed by several choices of speakers, discussions, and activities. The main forum this evening was about the appropriateness of churches being involved in matters of public policy. There were four speakers, and what you see below are some of the remarks from Gary Lankford, president of the Ohio Restoration Project. He kept emphasizing that we need to really listen to each other, and learn to disagree, without being disagreeable. That quickly becomes difficult, for me, anyway. Part of his talk below...

The reason I'm here instead of at a high school football game on a Friday night, is because I think community forums are important, and I think we're in danger in our society of losing our ability to disagree without being disagreeable. I've heard three very different perspectives, and I agree with all three of you on some points, and disagress vigorously with some of you on other points, but I'm happy to say that I consider you brothers in Christ, and hope we can find some point of commonality. Not only within the Body of Christ, but with other Americans who don't count themselves as part of our faith tradition. So, what I'd like to offer tonight is something that I've learned in dialog with what I call "liberals of good will". You know, there's a tendency in America to polarize and to demonize people who think differently than we do. I've heard lots of angry rhetoric on both sides, and yet when I sit down and talk with real people who disagree with me vigorously, I find that once we get through the initial friction, we're able to talk about some things and work on some things, and accomplish a little something, at least relationally, and find some points of commonality. And that's what I want--to help share with you some of the things that I'm learning, and maybe help you understand what it's like on the Evangelical side of the aisle.

I've learned from dialoguing with my liberal friends that they really do have a very different perception of what's going on in America, and the conflict in the religious conversation going on, so I'm going to share some of those things with you if I could.

For over 300 years in America, it was widely assumed that to be in public office, you needed to be a Christian--or at least a Unitarian or a Deist. And that distinction, though important, wasn't critical, because even Deists in ages past were much more biblical in their worldview and their understanding of scripture than many of today's Evangelical office-holders. It was a different culture, and we had a broad, Christian cultural consensus as the backdrop for the public discourse and the public debate. You know, one of the great achievements of American Christianity is religious tolerance. Religious tolerance was a new thing in the world, and not practiced very many places, and not practiced for very long anywhere.

Now when the colonists first came to America, they came for religious freedom from Catholicism. They were not very tolerant of other Protestants. Eventually they progressed to where they were tolerant of other Protestants. Some more time went by, and they finally accepted and tolerated Catholics. Some more time went by, and they finally tolerated Jews, and Hindus and Buddhists and other faith traditions--nonwestern religions. And finally America accepted Atheists and Secularists. And one of the historical ironies, once the Atheists and Secularists were accepted, they decided now would be a good time to kick Christians out of the public square.

And that's how the Evangelical side of the aisle feels now--we feel unwelcome in the public square. We feel like there's a deliberate, organized attempt to quiet us, and reduce our political influence, and reduce our ability to talk and debate in the public square. And this often comes as a great surprise to my liberal friends. Because they tend to think of the "Christian right" for lack of a better term, as being a powerful oppressive influence in society--something that must be fought. When my liberal friends say "Speak truth to power", they mean, "Speak against those angry religious right people that are ruining America." And yet we have a very different experience, and a very different perspective of what's going on in America.

There was this broad Christian consensus in America, and in the 1930s, the Secularists began to organize in a very purposeful way, and they made astounding progress for a country with the kind of religious tradition and cultural tradition that America had. And by 20 or 30 or 40 years later, they were pre-eminent in the universities, in the medias, in the mainline churches, and in government. In fact, it was in the 1950s that William F. Buckley wrote a famous book called God and Man at Yale.  Yet Ivy League schools all over America had started as Christian seminaries, and by the 1950s, Christians weren't welcome there any more. Certainly not on faculty--they were ghetto-ized and minimized in universities in the Ivy League, and later, in the mainstream university experience. In fact, at most universities, outspoken Evangelicals are outnumbered by liberal people, 10-1 to 16-1, depending on what university you're in. That's a pretty significant victory for people on the left side of the aisle.

There were also some very significant Supreme Court decisions that came in the 1960s and 70s, and I want you to think about this for a second. These were all landmark decisions that marked major shifts in American culture and American experience. They all happened for the very first time in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1961, we had Torcaso vs. Watkins, where for the first time they outlawed religious tests for public office. 1961. In 1962 they outlawed any kind of school prayer in American schools, led in any way by teachers or faculty or staff. Here was the prayer that they outlawed in 1962: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers, and our country." That was deemed a violation of the separation of church and state.  Did you catch that? "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers, and our country."

In 1963, the Court found Bible reading over the school intercom unconstitutional. You couldn't read Bible verses in the morning announcements. In 1971, they devised a new test to determine what was "excessive entanglement" in church-state issues, called the Kurtzman test. Here are the three new definitions. The government action must have a secular purpose, or it's not allowed. Its primary purpose must not be to inhibit or advance religion--if it inhibits or advances religion, it's not allowed. And three, there must be no excessive entanglement between government and religion. Now if you follow church-state court cases at all in the last 35 years, you'll find that the Lemon v. Kurtzman case settle nothing at all. Every Supreme Court had a totally different idea of what each of those three points meant in practical usage.

Then you have 1972, Roe vs. Wade, where all the state laws regarding abortion were overturned, and the Supreme Court decided there was now a constitutional right to abortion. After 200 years, now there was a constitutional right. It was a pretty significant change.

And 1977, the court found that the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools was unconstitutional.  And they referred to the Lemon-Kurtzman decision in a 5-4 ruling,  saying that even though the ten commandments were posted in schools since they were started, in the early 1800s, it was now unconstitutional.

So what you find is that by the 1960s, the liberal church became politically active. They became politically active in the war on poverty, in the civil rights movement, and in the anti-war movement. Now the conservatives were dragged reluctantly into politics in the late 70s and early 80s, back with the Moral Majority people and the Pat Robertson people, Christian Coalition and all that stuff. And I say reluctantly, because they're still reluctant. And I know they're reluctant because I'm still dragging them into the public square--they still don't want to be there. Most Evangelicals just want to be left alone. They feel like they're responding to an aggressive, hostile culture that won't let them be.

Now again, if you count yourself as a liberal, I'm not accusing you of anything. I'm just sharing with you what the experience is in my faith community, and the people that I talk to, the people I know that are politically motivated, and why they're motivated. The people I know don't have any desire to lead a theocracy. They don't have any desire to oppress women, or minorities, or any other group. That's not the motivation of churchgoing people. They feel like they have to respond to some of the things going on politically and culturally.

And the rhetoric has been even worse in the last five or ten years. In the last several years, people in my faith community have been accused of, here's a headline from Harper's Magazine, "The Christian Right's War on America". That's a cover story, "The Christian Right's War on America". Now we've been called the "American Taliban". We heard on national tv by that great philosopher Rosie O'Donnell, that radical Christianity is just as dangerous as radical Islam. Now, most people in my faith community have trouble not taking that personally. There are no people among radical Christians that are bombing innocent civilians. Our churches don't get together and organize bombing raids, so that seems like an unfair criticism of people in my community.

We're often called extremists and hatemongers. Bigoted. Anti-tolerant. Homophobic. Mysogynist. In fact, we feel like we're the only group that you can criticize without fear of retribution. Now again, I share this with you, because, when I share this with liberals, they are very surprised that that's our experience. They don't think that's true at all. And again, one of the reasons I support community forums is it's very easy for us to talk in our own little echo chambers, and never talk to anybody that thinks significantly differently from we do, and we never learn to have any sort of dialog.

One of my favorite cultural moments was hearing Julia Roberts being interviewed on The Tonight Show. She was absolutely convinced that the Republicans had stolen the presidential election--the first George Bush election. Not because that was an illegitimate claim--her proof was, "I know they stole the election. I don't know a single person that voted for George Bush! They must have stolen it." And that's all too typical of us. We don't know a single person who voted for the other guy, so there must be fraud involved! I hope we can get past that.

There's more, but I'm still working on it. I really appreciated hearing Eric Williams, who spoke first, and was one of the main people behind the IRS complaint that was filed against two major churches that were practically endorsing Ken Blackwell. I'm hoping to write up some of what he said next.

There were also two other speakers, both Evangelicals. Everyone was supposed to give a 10 minutes opening statement. Lankford's statment was almost 20 minutes.

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