Religion & Politics Fit For Polite Company Wed, 28 Jan 2015 19:44:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Holt v. Hobbs: Does a Muslim Prisoner’s Case Foreshadow the End of Affirmative Action? Wed, 28 Jan 2015 17:21:39 +0000 Holt v Hobbs

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Attorney Douglas Laycock, center, speaks with reporters after his argument before the Supreme Court in Holt v. Hobbs. At left is Hannah Smith, a senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of an Arkansas inmate who had been barred from growing, for religious reasons, a half-inch beard by the state prison system. The case, however, is not merely about inmates and prisons. It confirms that we are in an era of robust judicial protection for religious freedom, and it informs the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence in other contentious areas of individual rights.

The case, Holt v. Hobbs, was set in motion by Gregory Holt, who also goes by Abdul Maalik Muhammad. Holt, an inmate housed by the Arkansas Department of Correction, sought to grow a beard in accordance with his Muslim faith. The Department prohibits inmates from growing beards, although inmates with a dermatological condition may grow a beard no longer than a fourth of an inch. Holt proposed a compromise: he would grow a half-inch beard. The Department did not budge. Accordingly, Holt proceeded to federal court.

Inmates shed many of the rights they otherwise enjoyed in civilian life. Holt’s religious rights ordinarily would be among those rights that he would cede to prison authorities. But, Holt filed his lawsuit under a federal statute, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which was enacted by Congress in 2000 to accord special protection to inmates’ religious freedom.

Traditionally, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment was read to protect religious freedom only to the extent that the challenged law itself carved out a religious exception. In 1963, however, the Supreme Court interpreted the Free Exercise Clause to require a religious exemption to any generally applicable law that imposed a substantial burden on the individual’s religious exercise, unless the government could prove that the law was necessary to further a compelling governmental purpose. A “substantial burden” generally occurs when the law either compels an individual to do that which violates the individual’s religious beliefs, or prohibits an individual from doing that which is mandated by the individual’s religious beliefs.

In a 1990 case, the Court effectively reverted back to the pre-1963 understanding of the Free Exercise Clause. In response, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), which expanded religious protections to levels established by the Court in 1963. Under RFRA, a law that substantially burdens an individual’s sincere religious beliefs must give way, unless the government can demonstrate that its action furthers a compelling purpose in a way that is the least restrictive of religious freedom. With the ball back in its court, the Supreme Court determined that that Congress did not have the constitutional power to enact RFRA, thereby striking it down insofar as it applied to the states and leaving it binding only on the federal government.

The back-and-forth continued until Congress passed RLUIPA. RLUIPA contains the same standards as RFRA, but it applies only to land use and prison contexts and rests on a different source of constitutional authority. Under RLUIPA, Holt had to prove that the Department of Correction substantially burdened his sincerely held religious beliefs. Holt asserted, and the Department did not dispute, that Holt’s interest in growing a beard was based on a sincerely held religious belief. Further, it was undisputed that the grooming policy substantially burdened Holt’s religious beliefs, as the policy placed him in a bind: grow his beard and face discipline for violating the Department’s policy, or shave completely and violate his sincere religious beliefs.

With Holt having met this threshold, RLUIPA required the Department to establish that its policy furthers a compelling purpose in a way that is least restrictive of religious freedom. The Department defended its grooming policy on two principal grounds: first, that an inmate would be able to conceal contraband in a half-inch beard; and second, that an inmate would be able to frustrate or evade quick detection in the event of a prison emergency or prisoner escape.

The Supreme Court agreed that both of these purposes were compelling. But the Court ruled that the policy was not the least restrictive ways to advance these purposes. First, the Court doubted that contraband could get lost in a half-inch beard. It was “almost preposterous,” a U.S. Magistrate Judge said, that contraband could be hidden in Holt’s beard. Rather than impose a ban on such beards, the Court noted that the Department could search prisoners’ beards or require prisoners to run a comb through their beards. Contraband, such as a “revolver,” Justice Samuel Alito quipped, would fall out from such combing. Second, the Court noted that the Department could facilitate the quick and reliable identification of prisoners by having two photographs of each prisoner on hand: one clean-shaven, and one bearded. These twin photographs could then be referenced in the event of an incident.

Further, the Court stated that the Department’s security and identification arguments were tough to square with the fact that the Department permits prisoners to grow a fourth-inch beard for medical reasons and permits prisoners to grow hair on their head beyond the half-inch limit. The Department’s arguments also were undermined by the fact that a vast majority of state prison systems, and the federal Bureau of Prisons, allow inmates to grow their hair, either for any reason or for religious reasons, despite having the same or concerns about safety and identification. The Department fell short in its effort to explain that it has unique circumstances necessitating special rules. Indeed, the Department did not give any examples of situations in which beards hindered the Department’s safety interests. The closest the Department came was its mentions of incidents in which a prisoner killed a guard with a “shank” and in which Holt placed a knife against the neck of another inmate. But these two situations say nothing about the relationship between security and identification, on one hand, and beards on the other. All told, the Court had little trouble ruling that the Department’s refusal to allow Holt to grow a religious beard constituted a violation of RLUIPA.

The decision has wide-ranging implications. The current Supreme Court has made clear that it intends to give full effect to Congress’s intent to afford broad protections to incarcerated individuals’ religious freedom. The extent to which RLUIPA meaningfully shielded prisoners’ religious freedom was unclear. Indeed, the two lower federal courts sided with the Department, and federal courts had ruled for prison systems in similar RLUIPA cases. These courts did so primarily because courts routinely have deferred to the expertise of prison officials. In Holt, the Supreme Court clarified that deference must be predicated upon specific information related to the desired religious practice, not speculative statements or generalized concerns about prison safety and security. In the absence of those details, deference is not owed and any judicial deference still given would be tantamount to judicial abdication.

In terms of balancing government interests and religious freedom, Holt further suggests that the Court’s pendulum has swung towards the protective end of the religious freedom spectrum. Eric Rassbach of the Becket Fund, the public interest law firm that was part of Holt’s legal team, notes that the case “heralds a new period of rigorous enforcement of federal civil rights statutes concerning religious practices.” This recognition of religious freedom extends and includes both majoritarian and non-majoritarian faiths. The Court repeatedly has vindicated the rights of non-Christians. But context matters. The Supreme Court’s polarizing opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby—a RFRA ruling for Christian owners of closely held corporations—fueled the impression that the Court gave special solicitude to religious rights claims brought by Christians. In her Hobby Lobby dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked whether the Court was truly inclined to recognize the religious rights of religious minorities. Holt therefore represented, as The New York TimesLinda Greenhouse wrote, an opportunity for the Court to “allay suspicions that they are only interested in the free-exercise rights of Christians.” The Court seized this opportunity, confirming that it confers religious protection upon Christians and non-Christians alike.

A plausible claim can also be made that Holt foreshadows the end of affirmative action in the United States. The connection between religious rights and affirmative action may not be obvious, but race-based affirmative action is subject to a demanding standard—whether the admissions policies are “narrowly tailored” to further a “compelling” governmental objective—that is similar to the standard in RLUIPA. Accordingly, the Court’s response to the grooming policies at issue in Holt may inform its potential reaction to affirmative action.

As in Holt, the Supreme Court has determined that the reason why colleges and universities adopt affirmative action—to achieve the educational benefits of a diverse student body—is compelling. Accordingly, as in Holt, the permissibility of affirmative action boils down to the courts’ assessment of how colleges and universities attempt to achieve that objective. Holt sends a strong signal that the Court will closely scrutinize the government’s selected approach and the government’s claims as to the insufficiency of alternatives that don’t implicate protected rights. An ongoing issue in the affirmative action context, however, is that courts have not been given meaningful information by which to evaluate whether race-neutral alternatives may yield a sufficiently diverse student body, in which case the schools’ current use of race would be gratuitous. If the Court reviews the means used by colleges and universities with the same vigor it did in Holt, affirmative action policies could be in danger.

Holt is important in its own right because it eliminates outlier grooming policies to the benefit of prisoners nationwide. Beyond this, Holt helps to restore the expansive bounds of religious freedom in this country—and it hints at future Court shifts on religion and race.

Dawinder Sidhu is a law professor at the University of New Mexico, where he teaches and writes in the areas of constitutional law and criminal law, and is a former Supreme Court Fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @profsidhu

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The Politics of Poverty and Race Tue, 20 Jan 2015 16:35:29 +0000 President Johnson signs the "War on Poverty" bill into law in 1964. (Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images)

(Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images) President Johnson signs the “War on Poverty” bill into law in 1964.

This month marks 51 years since Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” speech. On January 8, 1964, during his State of the Union address, he urged the joint session of Congress to join him in a battle that the “richest Nation on earth can afford to win.” Over the past year, current elected officials have been reflecting on the legacy of Johnson’s war on poverty as a way of assessing contemporary anti-poverty policies and programs. Some Republicans have taken the opportunity to expound on the failures of the current liberal-progressive agenda in light of a poor economy and the nearly 50 million people still living in below the poverty line. With Representative Paul Ryan as their spokesperson, they have collectively resurrected an assessment Ronald Reagan made in 1987 that the government “waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.” Ryan has followed the standard conservative party logic: big government spending on “counterproductive” federal programs induces the poverty trap—a mechanism that impedes upward mobility from poverty to the middle class. For Ryan, who is the current chairman of the House Budget Committee and was the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, the current federal policies dissuade the free-market values of work and independence that are essential to the American way of happiness and success.

Last July, Ryan released his latest proposal, “Expanding Opportunity in America,” a program designed to reduce poverty and increase social mobility. In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that unveiled the proposal, Ryan said, “We need to cut down the bureaucratic red tape. A lot of families are trying to get ahead, but Washington is just simply getting in the way.” He also embarked on a poverty tour around the country, visiting local leaders and learning how they combat poverty in their communities. Last August, he released a book title The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea, which advocates for growing the economy and civil society—not government programs. Ryan and other Republicans have once again strategically transported the discussion of poverty to the domain of individual cultural behaviors. Inspired by local religious and charity organizations’ successes at eliminating gangs from school grounds and assisting men with drug addictions, the party has adopted the cultural deficit hypothesis—blaming poverty on broken families and dependency rather than on social inequities. Against the American “nuclear family,” the “broken family” is a coded term for the single, female-headed household crowded with illegitimate children, which Ryan identifies as the primary cause of intergenerational poverty.

Ryan has pushed for drastic cuts to safety net programs such as food stamps and housing vouchers. He stresses that welfare programs must be centered on a work-first mentality. Underneath this emphasis is the ideology of dependence and a presumption that poor people lack the motivation to work. In March of 2014, Ryan told conservative radio host Bill Bennett that there is a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” It is not surprising that on the air Ryan mentioned neoconservative social scientist Charles Murray, the controversial co-author of The Bell Curve, to justify his claim about the tailspin of culture. These arguments date back to the Progressive Era and to debates around “Negro loaferism,” which depicted blacks as unwilling or unable to work; that trope intellectually grounded the notion of the “undeserving poor” and vagrancy laws. Ryan later apologized in a statement sent to reporters and concluded that his comments were “inarticulate.”

Ryan’s rumination on the broken family and dependency is a footnote to the larger discourse of the urban black underclass that resurfaced during the Reagan administration. The problems with dependency and the female-headed household were popularized in the 1976 Republican primary, when then-California Governor Ronald Reagan told audiences the story of a lascivious, lazy, and criminally minded, Cadillac-driving “Welfare Queen,” who abused the system in deindustrialized Chicago. Although Reagan lost a close race to Gerald Ford, his attack on the war on poverty provided the intellectual foundations for a theoretical shift in the poverty debates from wage distribution and federal policies to cultural and behavioral patterns. The “Welfare Queen” speech showed that urban blacks were easy targets (or villains!) to support Cold War-era, free-market values and to rail against the welfare state and civil rights legislation. Although Reagan’s welfare queen was an isolated case and an exaggerated tale, it did not matter. That symbol prompted pundits to legitimate urban black cultural deficiencies—single-parent households, teenage pregnancy, laziness, drug addictions, and high-school dropouts—through pseudo-scientific and arbitrary statistics, graphs, and I.Q. testing. During the Reagan Revolution, the black underclass was transformed into a purely cultural category designed to delineate a set of urban behaviors that were deemed pathological or deficient, according to historian Alice O’Connor in her volume, Poverty-Knowledge. In 1986, liberal journalist Nicholas Lemann wondered in The Atlantic how the bifurcation of the middle and lower class in Black America continued, even “during a period of relative prosperity and of national commitment to black progress.” His answer? “In the ghettos … it appears that the distinctive culture is now the greatest barrier to progress by the black underclass, rather than either unemployment or welfare.” In essence, Lemann was saying that economic policies paled in the face of an overpowering culture that confined the black underclass to a life of destruction. Although Lemann’s analysis of the black underclass sought to transcend either a Republican or Democratic solution, his attention to the negative power of culture definitely fueled neoconservatives’ cultural deficit hypothesis. In the 2012 Republican primaries, the rhetoric around government handouts and the criticism of Barack Obama as the “food-stamp president” underscored how American politics was and is still deeply wedded to the discourse around the “Welfare Queen” and the black underclass of the late 1970s and 80s. Democrats have not been immune either. The Clinton administration’s welfare reforms of the 1990s dismantled many programs, and made cash benefits to poor families temporary and contingent on finding employment. The cultural deficiency hypothesis—the idea that deficits in black culture keep black Americans in poverty—continues to frame the discussion of poverty in American politics.

Often overlooked in the cultural deficit hypothesis is the role that religion has played in stereotyping the urban, black lower class. In the late 1930s and 40s, liberal-minded social scientists began to study black laborers at the height of the New Deal era. They were invested in chronicling the psychological ramifications of segregation in urban race relations. In doing so, social scientists, such as E. Franklin Frazier, John Dollard, and Allison Davis, helped to legitimate the cultural assumptions about impoverished, black laborers—from their parenting skills and sexual relationships to leisure activities and group affiliations. In her book Your Spirits Walk Beside Us, Barbara Savage writes that these social scientists “often advanced old arguments without questioning them or listening to the ideas of their human subjects.” Savage adds that within lower-class, black religious circles, these scholars “occupied overlapping roles as trespassers, as intermediaries, as experts, and, ultimately, as creators of narratives they told about respectability and deviance in black communities.”

In investigating religion, ethnographers chronicled the beliefs, songs, worship styles, testimonies, visions, and prayers in the growing Pentecostal, Holiness, Spiritual, and “independent churches” in the urban South and North. Studies concentrated on how these emerging “sects and cults” were fundamentally changing the religious and cultural landscape in modern America. Ethnographers were interested in exploring the appeal of these churches and denominations to black lower classes, especially to black women who were domestic servants. They interpreted the theologies, rituals, and expressions as the behavioral repository for black, lower-class expressions and their reactions to the social inequalities that engulfed them.

In September of 1939, social anthropologist Guy Johnson attended a late-night, religious ceremony at Father Divine’s Peace Missions in Harlem, New York, as part of his work with the Myrdal-Carnegie Corporation race-relations research team. Johnson devoted his attention mainly to single, black, middle-aged women and their “hand-clapping, foot-patting, and swaying bodies, sometimes, in a shuffle dance during the spirit-led and “lustily” sung songs. Johnson was shocked at the women’s emotional and physical stamina that reached its peak in the “hysterical shrieking, fainting spells, shouts,” once Father Divine appeared well after midnight. After visiting the same church, economist Gunnar Myrdal concluded that a “person acquainted with the problems and techniques of abnormal psychology” could particularly well assess the impact of black religion among the black lower class.

American sociologists and anthropologists certainly paid close attention to the shouting, singing, dancing, and rhythmic oral expressions in Negro revivals (i.e. prayers, sermons, call-and-response) to capture what they deemed to be inherited racial characteristics. But Johnson and other racial liberals, however, did not interpret these religious experiences in independent churches as natural behaviors. Instead, they interpreted the crying, fainting spells, hand-clapping, and swaying bodies of black, middle-aged women as signs of the “lack of training and discriminatory labor policies, low economic status, and poor housing” in urban environments, as Edward Palmer wrote in 1945 in the Quarterly Review of Higher Education among Negroes. Johnson and his colleague Palmer saw a relationship between middle-aged women’s religious experiences and their restriction to the domestic occupations. They argued that the popularity of these independent religious movements stemmed from the freedom they offered to low-income workers, who could release their daily frustrations and rage organically and emotionally. Palmer asserted that expressive “religion always appears when people are thwarted and when they can do little to remove the limitations which encircle them.”

These liberal-minded social scientists’ reflections compared the religious behaviors of the black, lower class with dominant, cultural norms and values. For Gunnar Myrdal, the “hysterical” behaviors exhibited in the independent churches represented “distorted development” and the spiritual and cultural lag of low-income blacks, i.e. the cultural deficit hypothesis. These assumptions increasingly sought to use black religious rituals and practices as data to highlight the marginalization of black, low-income communities from modern life and to make the case that the federal government should legislate policies to assimilate blacks into the larger, mainstream society.

The cultural deficit hypothesis emerged out of liberal and conservative commentaries on the black underclass. It continues to dominate our discussion of poverty in America today. It lurks beneath Ryan and other Republicans’ declaration that Lyndon Johnson’s unconditional war on poverty has been soundly defeated. Many unjust systems, past and current, keep Americans in poverty, from housing discrimination and unequal access to quality education to mass incarceration and racial profiling. The national discussion of poverty is still framed around cultural behaviors while ignoring the deep structural inequities that have fostered high rates of poverty in the contemporary economy. In the end, ascribing certain behaviors or pathologies that actually cut across race, class, and region solely to a particular people underscores a blind faith in the myth of free-market society.

Jamil Drake is a Ph.D. candidate in American Religious Cultures in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University. He is currently completing his dissertation, “To Know the Soul of the People: The Field Study of the ‘Folk Negro’ and the Making of Popular Religion in Modern America, 1924-1945.”

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The Fate of American Religious Freedom: An Interview with Legal Scholar Steven D. Smith Tue, 13 Jan 2015 17:34:18 +0000 (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In the wake of important judicial rulings on culture war issues such as same-sex marriage and contraception, “religious freedom” has emerged as one of the most hotly contested terms in American political discourse. As public opinion on these issues has liberalized, many conservatives have embraced religious freedom as a safe vantage from which to legislate. In response, many progressives cite the secularity of the United States Constitution to argue against overtly religious policy.

Steven D. Smith is the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego. His most recent book, The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom, advocates a return to what he calls “the American settlement”—an arrangement under which the constitution is read to be neither religious nor secular, but rather open to the best argument of either persuasion. Eric C. Miller spoke with Smith about his project.

R&P: In recent years, scholars of law and history have published a lot of interesting books about religious freedom in America. Your book is on the “rise and decline” of religious freedom, and I’ve read others on “the myth,” “the tragedy,” and “the impossibility” of religious freedom. Why is there currently so much interest in this subject, and why is it cast in such dramatic terms?

SS: I think there are two main reasons (which may ultimately come down to the same reason) for the interest, and for the woeful tone. One reason is that religion is at the core of the culture wars, which seem to be intensifying. A stark manifestation of this fact was a finding in the opinion of Judge Vaughn Walker, the federal district judge who invalidated California’s Proposition 8. The judge found that something like 85 percent of voters who attended church regularly voted in favor of the measure—in favor of traditional marriage, basically—while close to 85 percent of people who never attend church voted against it. Given divergences like this, people on the “progressive” side of the culture wars often come to view religion as the enemy. And they may come to see religious freedom as empowering that enemy.

Which leads to the second reason for the interest, and the apocalyptic tone: the traditional commitment to religious freedom seems more embattled today, and more vulnerable, than at any time in the modern period. Just a few years ago it was liberals (like Justice Brennan) who were the champions of religious freedom; today they are often opponents or skeptics (as the recent furor over the Hobby Lobby decision reflected). And the dominant opinion among legal scholars who work in this area seems to be that special constitutional protection for religious freedom is a product of contingent features of the founding period but is not something that could be justified today.

My book tries to offer some background for and insight into these developments. I suggest that the traditional “American settlement” with respect to religious pluralism centered on a principle of open contestation under which both providentialist and more secularist interpretations of the Republic had an assured place in the public square. This settlement was theoretically inelegant and sometimes messy in practice, but it allowed for peaceful engagement—and for an expansion of religious pluralism.

Beginning with the school prayer decisions in the early 1960s, however, the Supreme Court in effect repudiated this settlement, elevated a secularist interpretation to the status of constitutional orthodoxy, and demoted the providentialist view to the position of constitutional heresy.

One consequence of this repudiation was a sort of revival of the old “wars of religion” (in a less violent form, thankfully). The older battle lines had been between Catholics and Protestants; the newer division is between secularists and providentialists. A second consequence has been that the classic justifications for religious freedom, as articulated by Locke, Jefferson, Madison and others, were rendered inadmissible, because they were all theological in character. As a result, the commitment to religious freedom comes to be less defensible.

R&P: I really enjoyed your book, in part because it challenged some of my progressive assumptions about the American settlement. But it seems to me that much of the concern—in the culture war realm, anyway—focuses on exception rather than rule. Religious people remain perfectly free to practice their faith in countless ways without any governmental interference. But in a few cases—like Prop 8 and Hobby Lobby—religious citizens have claimed the right to impose their beliefs on people who don’t share them. Isn’t it fair to draw a line here?

SS: I have to say, Eric, that the all-too-familiar objection to “imposing beliefs [or values] on others” is in my view a rhetorically potent but question-begging and wholly unhelpful way of addressing these kinds of conflicts. That is because the description equally applies to both sides of the controversies.

You mention the Hobby Lobby controversy. Hobby Lobby’s owners, the Green family, evidently believe that abortion is a sin, and that it would be a violation of their Christian commitments for them to facilitate that sin by providing insurance that covers some prescriptions they regard as abortifacients. If the Greens are excused from providing such coverage, you can say if you like that they are “imposing their beliefs” on their employees. (Although I confess that this description seems to me a bit strained, and tendentious: no employees are required to believe anything, or to forgo abortion or contraception.) Conversely, if the government forces the Greens to provide such coverage, this is clearly a case of the government imposing some set of (to them) alien values or requirements. “Imposition” occurs either way.

As it happens, in this particular instance the burden of the imposition on the Greens seems considerably more severe than the burden of an exemption on the employees. If an exemption is given, the burden on a Hobby Lobby employee who wants or needs contraceptives is that she will have to obtain them in some other way, or else try to find another employer. That is a burden, to be sure. Still, contraceptives are readily available, and there are lots of employers in America. If an exemption is denied, conversely, the burden on the Greens (if they remain faithful to their convictions) is, basically, that they will probably have to shut down their business.

Of course, you may not share the Greens’ beliefs—not many people today do—and so you may not sympathize with them. But, seriously, which burden seems more onerous?

In Rise and Decline I suggest that our contemporary approach to religious pluralism might accurately be characterized as one of denial (or self-deception). We intone, over and over again, that government must be “neutral” toward all religions. And then we desperately try to ignore or obfuscate the fact that in cases of genuine conflict, there simply is no meaningfully neutral position.

In this vein, a pervasive strategy is to criticize your opponent’s position for departing from neutrality (as it will, inevitably) while distracting attention (other people’s and your own) away from the fact that your own position is equally a departure from neutrality. There are various techniques for accomplishing this. But the language of “imposing values on others” is one very common (and often rhetorically effective) way of practicing this sort of deception or self-deception.

R&P: I’m not quite ready to concede the point, but I think I can concede this example and still argue that, in the vast majority of cases, the government does not interfere in religious practice. High profile claims of interference always seem to coincide with the interests of conservative politics, which makes folks like me a little cynical. But here’s a question: if we endorse an environment of open contestation, rather than enforced secularism, how should controversies like these be decided? Since Prop 8 lost and Hobby Lobby won, are we sort of there already?

SS: It would be a mistake, I think, to suppose that important free exercise claims always arise on the conservative side. Protecting the right of a Muslim prisoner to wear a beard—which is the issue before the Supreme Court this term—isn’t exactly a conservative cause. But you’re right: the most visible free exercise cases in recent years—such as Hobby Lobby—have involved claims by traditionalists or religious conservatives.

This fact might help explain why liberals have largely shifted their attitudes toward religious freedom. You mention a cynical attitude; a cynical suggestion from the other direction might say that from John Stuart Mill through Justice Brennan, liberals were the great champions of religious freedom as long as the leading beneficiaries—in England, dissenters from the established church; in this country, draft resisters, Native American peyote users, the Amish—were themselves on the liberal side, or at least were people with whom liberals could readily sympathize.

But as the beneficiaries have come to be more on the traditionalist side, liberals now perceive religious freedom as an impediment to their agenda. That diagnosis is too cynical and simple—or at least I hope it is—but it may contain some truth.

As to how current controversies over the contraception mandate or objections to same-sex marriage would come out under “the American settlement,” there’s no way to say for sure. The whole point of the principle of open contestation was to assure the contending parties, whether secularist or providentialist, a place at the political table, so to speak, so that they could argue out the issues on the merits.

The argument was open because there was no presumption, as there is now, that religious or “providentialist” reasons for political decisions are illegitimate—and no expectation that the Supreme Court would step in and settle controversies by fiat. Which side would “win” depended, consequently, on who could mobilize the most support and make the most persuasive case—persuasive not just in mundane political or pragmatic terms, but in terms of appeals to our (lower case) “constitution,” or to the values, principles, and traditions that constitute us as a people. Secularist positions would prevail on some issues in some times and places, more religious positions for other issues, times, and places.

R&P: I think I am representative of a lot of progressives in that I consider myself an advocate of religious freedom, but I object to (what I see as) its opportunistic deployment. In my view, many of those who appeal to religious freedom these days really only care about conservative Christian freedom, or otherwise embrace freedom as a cloaking device for oppression and moral condemnation. But I also don’t want to fall into the trap you’ve identified—of embracing or opposing freedom based on my own partisan interest. You suggest that open contestation would not only improve our legal structure, but the quality of our public discourse on controversial subjects. How?

SS: Two points in response. First, I suppose it’s natural for any of us to care about a legal right—religious freedom, freedom of speech, right to counsel, whatever—when it’s working to protect us or people we sympathize with. And, conversely, to be more suspicious when the right is helping people we disagree with. It’s also possible, as you say, to use rights opportunistically. If religious freedom can get you out of going to Vietnam, for instance, there’s an incentive to try to exploit the right.

Back in high school, a good friend—who was a thoughtful, earnest pacifist but not a religious person—asked if I could help him prepare a religious justification for avoiding military service. The incentives were strong.

By and large, though, I think it’s more charitable but also more realistic to treat claims of religious freedom as sincere, whether they arise on the right or the left. Would a Muslim prisoner litigate a claim over wearing a beard if he didn’t have a sincere religious conviction? Maybe, but … And purely as a business proposition, Hobby Lobby only hurts itself by closing on Sundays, for instance, or by forfeiting the services of qualified workers who don’t like the business’s Christian policies. Why would the Green family adopt such profit-reducing policies if they didn’t have a sincere commitment?

Second, you ask how open contestation would affect public discourse. With apologies, I’m inclined to refer to another book I did several years ago, called The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. The basic thesis is that legally or culturally imposed secularist constraints inhibit us from presenting, defending, and examining our deepest normative commitments; we’re forced instead to “smuggle” in those commitments under the heading of generic values like liberty or equality. The result is a public discourse that is impoverished, inefficacious, sometimes disingenuous.

Or worse. Often, when our real normative commitments can’t be presented, the best or only remaining rhetorical strategy is to dismiss those we disagree with on the assumption that they are acting from bad faith, bigotry, or hatred. That strategy, and that kind of dismissiveness, are pervasive these days (as your question itself may suggest).

An egregious example, in my view, is the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in United States v. Windsor, which invalidated a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Justice Kennedy said the law was invalid because it was enacted from “a bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group,” or from a “purpose to demean” or “to injure.” All of the familiar (and fiercely contested) reasons given for DOMA and equivalent state laws are thereby implicitly declared to be not merely unpersuasive, but pretextual: the millions of Americans who purport to believe those reasons are essentially lying, or deceiving themselves, to conceal what is in reality pure irrational malevolence.

But how could Anthony Kennedy possibly know this to be so? Does appointment to the Supreme Court confer an ability to look into the hearts and minds of millions of people he has never met? And can you think of any accusation better calculated to promote resentment and cultural division? This is judicial discourse at its most degraded, I believe, truly unworthy of Supreme Court justices, but it’s linked to the limitations created by secularist constraints.

Whether at this point easing those constraints would lead to improvements in the discourse is hard to predict: bad discursive habits may be hard to break. But I would say it’s worth a try.

Eric C. Miller is assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.

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Pope Francis Causes Division Among Cubans in Miami Wed, 07 Jan 2015 16:29:10 +0000 Pope Francis and President Obama

(Getty/Saul Loeb)

Hours after the news broke in December that the United States and Cuba were reinstating diplomatic relations, I arrived at a Catholic Church in one of Miami’s largest parishes. The church’s priest is a charismatic man of Cuban descent well known throughout Miami. He was in meetings all morning and thus had only heard rumors that something had happened. “Padre,” I asked him in Spanish, “did you hear the news?”

In the flurry of conversation that happened in the hallway—a discussion that only grew bigger as the cleaning ladies, IT guys, seminarians, and front office staff joined in—the details surfaced. Months of secret meetings between government officials had culminated in the announcement on Wednesday, December 17, 2014. Both the United States and Cuba would ease restrictions on travel and financial transactions between the two countries; prisoners would go free; and President Barack Obama said he would push to end the 54-year-old trade embargo.

“And best of all,” said one of the staff, “is that the pope helped make it all happen.”

Indeed, reports detailed that Pope Francis had urged accord between the two nations, writing letters to President Raúl Castro and President Obama and holding a diplomatic meeting at the Vatican.

The parish priest, who asked not to be identified, was torn. He was happy that the pope had been influential, but he was also deeply concerned. “Uff,” he said with a tired drop of his arms. “Now who is going to put up with all the Cubans saying that it was the pope’s fault?”

No es facil,” a woman who works in the church office later said about the pope’s intervention. “It’s not easy.” This phrase is commonplace in Miami, a catch-all phrase that is used just as easily in jest or in seriousness. Stuck in traffic? No es facil. Loved one dying in the hospital? No es facil. Lost your job? No es facil.

But standing there in the parking lot outside of the parish, her words weighed heavily. Her husband had been one of the many Cuban counter-revolutionaries who worked for the CIA in Miami to topple the Castro dictatorship in the early 1960s. They both had left everything behind on the island in order to make it in the United States. And now the Catholic Church had been integral in the renewal of ties to their homeland, a homeland with both positive and negative memories.

“I know what this means,” she told me, emphasizing that her past allows her to fully understand the announcement. “This is big news, news that will have profound effects.”

And about Pope Francis? “He works for peace,” she said with a shrug before she got in her car, “pero no es facil.”


TO UNDERSTAND MODERN-DAY Miami necessitates understanding the history of Cuba—especially post-1959 Cuba. And part of this history is deeply entwined with the actions of the Catholic Church.

It was the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that began the first large-scale immigration of Cubans to Miami. As Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick detail in their seminal book, City on the Edge, many families, mostly from the educated business class, cut their losses in Cuba and took what they could to Miami. “The first two years of the Cuban Revolution,” they write, “saw the gradual return to Miami … of the very groups who had known the city as a playground: first, the privileged for whom Miami was a day trip, and then those who could afford to come every summer.” These Cubans managed to carve a significant economic, political, and social niche in Miami. The isolation they received from the city’s white population both defined the community and strengthened its solidarity; they were able to form, in the words of Portes and Stepick, a “moral community” that helped them survive.

Beyond these economic elites, however, part of this first wave of refugees included several thousand unaccompanied minors that arrived in Miami without any contacts or family members to receive them. The Catholic Welfare Bureau stepped in to help with this emergency through Operation Peter Pan: a massive relocation project that sent these minors to foster and group homes nationwide. Headed by a 30-year-old Irish priest, the Rev. Bryan O. Walsh (later dubbed the “Father of the Exodus”), this program sent more than 14,000 children to homes between December 1960 and October 1962.

Two decades later, just as this first wave of Cubans had carved a foothold in Miami, Fidel Castro opened the Mariel harbor and permitted thousands of Cubans to leave the island. Beginning in April 1980, droves of refugees left Cuba. By the time the Mariel harbor was closed in September, approximately 125,000 new refugees had arrived on the shores of Miami.

The Archdiocese of Miami stepped in and offered a tremendous amount of assistance to the refugees in the form of food, shelter, clothing, and other amenities. But one project in particular, La Ermita de la Caridad (the Shrine to Our Lady of Charity), was integral in bringing the Cuban community together. The shrine’s construction began with a provisional chapel in 1967, and it centers around Our Lady of Charity, a Marian image who also serves as the patroness of Cuba.

As Thomas A. Tweed details in his book, Our Lady of the Exile, the shrine helped the Cuban exile community to identify as such: a displaced people, exiles undergoing struggle together. “For many Cuban exiles,” Tweed said in a phone interview, “La Caridad is the unifying symbol of religion and nation.” The site was where Cubans went to hear about loved ones still on the island, where newly arrived refugees could go for information and social services, and where news could be disseminated. Over the years, the site would remain important for both the religious and political lives of Cubans in Miami. “Lots of Cubans would say that they disagree about everything,” Tweed said, “but not about La Caridad.”

La Caridad was the first visit I made on the day the news broke. When I arrived, however, all I found was an empty parking lot and a few devotees. As I returned over the next few days, I continually found the same: no meetings, no announcements. The priest did not mention the news outright during daily mass but rather asked for all to pray for God to guide our politicians and the pope. A staff member blocked me from reaching the priests for comment, and few devotees felt comfortable speaking with me.

One of the shrine’s longtime volunteers was not surprised when I told him that I was having a hard time getting people to talk. “Even if they agree [with the news],” he said, “they won’t admit it to you. This is too sensitive a topic, too divisive an issue. Many of the people feel betrayed: why would the Vatican do this?”

Ambivalence was found elsewhere in Miami’s Catholic circles. The Rev. Arturo Kannee, of San Juan Bosco Church in Little Havana, said he also avoided discussing the news in his homily because “it’s a very, very sensitive issue.” Although his congregation is now predominantly Central American, the church is still called the Cathedral of Exiled Cubans because of all the Cubans that used to go to services there. “I say to pray for Cuba, but that is not a topic that you can touch,” he said. Still, he added, “Thank God the pope got involved.”


MANY OF THOSE I approached in Miami recommended that I go to the one place where I was sure to get opinions: Versailles Cuban Restaurant and Café. Established in 1971, Versailles touts itself as “the world’s most famous Cuban restaurant” and is the epicenter for political conversation among Cubans in Miami. This is where politicians come to round up their Cuban constituents and where local Cubans have loud conversations about all topics.

Sure enough, the place was a madhouse the day of the announcement and those following: news vans and cameras littered the parking lot, people chanted slogans in front of the café window, and a man in a homemade oversized Obama mask walked around the area for people to take pictures of themselves knocking Obama out.

Efraín Rivas, a 53-year-old maintenance man and former political prisoner in Cuba, said, “This is treason against us. The pope is supposed to be about honesty, not about secrecy. How could he have participated in secret talks for 18 months like this?” He is a devout man, he told me, a Catholic man until the day he dies. But, he blurted, “I am now a Catholic without a pope.”

Carlos Alcover, 66, is a former Peter Pan refugee who has lived in the United States for more than 50 years. Although angered by the decision, he was careful to not criticize the pope. “We should give him thanks because he has been serving as a bridge between two sides,” he said, adding, “I hope he continues serving.”

Listening nearby was Barbara Pernaris, 48, who waited until Alcover ended before giving me her opinion. “The pope is supposed to be about peace and unification of the world,” she said, “but he’s caused a divide in the Cuban population.” She told me that she believed Pope Francis was completely in the wrong for getting involved. He is not a diplomat, she said, and it is important to maintain a separation between church and state.

The pope’s role complicates the Cuban response in Miami. The same Church that served the exiles so faithfully by saving thousands of Cuban refugee children and building a place for exiles in Miami has now become involved in the renewal of ties to Cuba. Whereas the Church once brought the Cuban exiles together, it seems to now be tearing them apart.

By the end of December, however, in the midst of the holiday season, the air appeared calmer in Miami. On December 30, I joined a friend at Versailles restaurant. I stood at the café window sipping my cortadito and asked the barista about the chaos that was still engulfing the café just days before. “This place?” she said. “This was una locura [a crazy scene]. No way, mijo, thank God that that passed.” In between steaming the milk for the next Cuban espresso and teasing another one of the baristas, she repeated what so many Cuban Americans had. “No es facil,” she said. It’s not easy.

Alfredo Garcia is a graduate student in sociology at Princeton University.

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Marilynne Robinson in Montgomery Mon, 22 Dec 2014 16:22:49 +0000 (Ulf Andersen/Getty)

(Ulf Andersen/Getty)

Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Lila has been greeted with rapture—not just by critics but also by a host of readers who rely on Robinson for novels that change the way they experience life in the world. During the last days of the countdown to Lila’s release, breathless fans took to the Internet to testify to the power of her prose. One commenter on the website The Toast wrote that Gilead “hooked me like a gasping fish”; another said that as she read it “I kept feeling like I’d been hit in the stomach by something huge and wonderful, and I’d have to stagger off and deal with my pathetic scrabbling soul until I was able to face reading more. It was like staring at the rising sun.” Anticipating Lila, a third reader vowed, “I will read this book slowly and intently and then reread it seventy times seven.”

I have been one of these ardent, gasping, staggering fans. Two years ago when I had the opportunity to teach a senior seminar at Yale on anything I wanted, I chose to teach one on James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Marilynne Robinson. My students and I read all of Robinson’s novels and spent a reverent afternoon with her papers in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. We reached into boxes and pulled out translucent, grease-spotted letters written while Robinson was cooking dinner, and spiral-bound notebooks filled with the transcendent sentences that would become her first novel Housekeeping, her neat cursive words about loss and resurrection inscribed next to crude, crayoned cars drawn by her small son. We held in our hands tangible evidence of the miraculous intimacy between the quotidian and the sublime.

It is this sacramental significance that makes Robinson’s writing feel so transformative and true. She evokes the hope of heaven in the everyday, and the promise of baptismal blessing in ordinary water. In this way, reading her books can be a religious experience. As one reader writes, “Whenever I’m reading a Marilynne Robinson book, I mostly believe in God and I have like sense memories of what real religion feels like to my body.” For some readers her books have even been a way back into formal religious faith. After reading Gilead and Home, my friend Francisco, who was raised Catholic and evangelical and had drifted away from both, sought and found a new spiritual home in his local Congregationalist church.

Even when she doesn’t bring people back to church, Robinson’s books can restore a kind of religious revelation that had seemed lost. In an essay on Buzzfeed called “Why I Read Marilynne Robinson,” Anne Helen Petersen writes about how Robinson’s novels allow her to set aside the “shame and alienation” of some of her evangelical experiences and remind her instead of “the religion I remember with fondness, both for its intellectual rigor and the righteousness of its teachings, which seem, at least in hindsight, the closest translations of the transgressive, progressive teachings of Jesus.” Petersen writes that this selfless and contemplative form of Christianity is “absent of the suffocating, contradictory ideologies that characterize much of its popularized iteration today.” For these reasons and others, Marilynne Robinson is an important figure for those of us who care about the role of religion in our national life. For many, she is a rare writer who can be trusted to represent Christianity to a culture that often sees faith as anti-intellectual or reactionary or easy to dismiss. As Mark O’Connell muses on The New Yorker’s website: “Hers is the sort of Christianity, I suppose, that Christ could probably get behind.”

Robinson has not only been hailed as the best person to define Christianity for our age—she’s been held up as a critically needed political voice. President Obama has named her as an important influence on his thought. And the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who calls Lila “unmistakably a Christian story,” believes Robinson’s fiction has profound public importance beyond the boundaries of Christendom: “Its moral acuity and insistence on what it means to allow the voiceless to speak give it a political and ethical weight well beyond any confessional limits.” For Williams and many others, Robinson’s writing both represents Christianity and transcends it, narrating a political and ethical vision that can serve as a kind of public conscience. To borrow a phrase from The New Yorker, there is now a “First Church of Marilynne Robinson,” and its adherents are everywhere: in pulpits and libraries and online and at the National Book Awards and in the White House. In her own writing and speaking, Robinson embraces this public role for herself, consciously re-interpreting traditional American Calvinism as a moral model for modern times.


MAKING CALVINIST THEOLOGY MEANINGFUL to modern Americans is a tough challenge, but insofar as it can be done, Robinson does it. In her Iowa trilogy (Gilead, Home, and Lila), she takes a classic, white, educated Calvinist vision of grace, a kind of loving and restrained Midwestern serenity, and opens it up. She shows how this deeply thought-out faith interacts with the disorienting extremes of slavery, racism, alcoholism, prison, poverty, illiteracy, and prostitution—extremes that are made manifest in the small town of Gilead through the experiences of damaged, outcast characters. Robinson’s great theological achievement is to show us the predictable limits yet surprising expansiveness of this fatalistic faith, which she demonstrates in plots that trace the ways white, male ministers and their families rise to the occasion of grace, or don’t, and in sentences that express a remarkable aesthetic vision that finds beauty and radiance in almost everything.

Gilead is narrated by the aging minister John Ames, and Home contains the same events told from the perspective of his best friend’s daughter Glory Boughton. In Lila, a prequel, Robinson returns to an outsider perspective reminiscent of her long-ago first book Housekeeping to show the encounter with grace from the perspective of a woman on the margins, Lila Dahl. Though Lila eventually marries the middle-class Ames, she grows up as a migrant farmworker, raised by a beloved foster mother whom she loses to jail. Armed with wariness and a knife, Lila makes her desolate way through the fields and brothels of Missouri and Iowa, finally arriving in the sanctuary of Gilead. For a while Lila lives in a ruined cabin in the woods outside of town, haunting the church and parsonage and graveyard, craving baptism for reasons she can’t understand, and teaching herself to write by copying Bible verses in a tablet. Eventually she and Ames begin an unlikely marriage that brings them unprecedented consolation, but also leaves Lila with unresolved desires to return to the wild world outside Gilead, to unbaptize herself and claim kinship with the lost people who live beyond the reach of religion.

In Lila’s story, Robinson extends the reach of grace farther than she ever has before— stretching it across boundaries of literacy and class, and testing it with extremes of evil and loss, and yet it survives, lovely and glowing. It’s an extraordinary thing to read and very moving. In a recent interview in The New York Times, Robinson tells a story about Oseola McCarty, an African American laundress of Lila’s generation who gained fame when, after a long and frugal life, she donated her surprisingly large life savings to the University of Southern Mississippi: “McCarty took down this Bible and First Corinthians fell out of it, it had been so read. And you think, Here is this woman that, by many standards, might have been considered marginally literate, that by another standard would have been considered to be a major expert on the meaning of First Corinthians!Robinson delights in religious narratives like Lila’s and Oseola’s: testimonies of fervent textual engagement that unsettle common assumptions about theological expertise and the relative worth of persons.

But despite this democratic expansiveness, there are some limits of Robinson’s religious vision that she doesn’t test or stretch—aspects of our world that simply don’t exist in the world of her novels. I don’t just mean limits of subject matter. Call them limits of community. Like Robinson herself, every one of her characters is an introvert, a loner, a person filled with the passion of loneliness (to borrow a phrase from Robinson herself). It’s impossible to imagine her writing about anyone who wasn’t. It’s not surprising that in a 2012 essay Robinson defines community in fairly disembodied terms, as an imaginative act that is almost indistinguishable from the practice of reading or writing fiction: “I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of … people who do not exist.” In her fiction, grace is communal only in the sense that it sometimes stretches to connect two people for a little while: a sister trying her best to understand an elusive long-lost brother, or a mother clasping her child close while he’s still small enough to be held. And even these moments of connection are savored in relation to the knowledge of their precariousness and the aching anticipation of their loss.

The novels’ power lies in their unsparing depictions of the isolated soul communing with itself or nature or God, thrown into relief by moments of mercy when the excluded prodigal or prostitute is welcomed home. But this gracious welcome doesn’t extend to everyone. The novels quietly perpetuate another kind of exclusion: the marginalization of embodied, literal community as a reliable source of solace and ethical vision. Though Ames has been a minister his whole life, he unsurprisingly admits that he prefers the church when it’s empty: “After a while I did begin to wonder if I liked the church better with no people in it.” (And of course he appreciates the empty church even more because he knows it’s about to be torn down.) Glory’s definition of church is likewise unpopulated except for the minister:

For her, church was an airy white room with tall windows looking out on God’s good world, with God’s good sunlight pouring in through those windows and falling across the pulpit where her father stood, straight and strong, parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ. That was church.

In the hundreds of pages of these novels about ministers and their families, congregants and townspeople are barely mentioned. We know they are there because unseen people sometimes silently drop off pies and casseroles at the parsonage, tactfully refraining from ringing the bell.

I believe Robinson’s deeply spiritual vision of loneliness, of ecstatic and resigned and despairing and meaningful disconnection, is part of what makes readers respond to her so rapturously in the Internet age. Her novels are a kind of digital Sabbath. As our inboxes overflow and our alerts and notifications multiply, her characters wait in vain for letters that don’t come, and lose track of people they once knew, and fail to make it to the phone in time to hear the faraway voice of the one they love. Through it all, they ache and yearn for a word, a sign, an echo or trace of what they have lost, or what they know they are about to lose. Her books have to be historical novels; it is not an accident they are set between sixty and a hundred years ago. But despite or because of their temporal remove, they are apparently exactly what many of us want to read now. Her characters breathe an unclouded atmosphere that speaks to our discontents as denizens of a world swirling with ambient data.

As a result, her religious vision excludes almost all of us. She can’t represent those of us who are tweeting and commenting and blogging and chatting about her books’ beauty, or comprehend those of us who find ourselves immersed in thick webs of connection and collectivity and populated chaos. Though Robinson clearly cares deeply about what might be called “social problems,” her stories of individual reckoning and resignation have little to say about lives lived in the midst of congregations or in the shadow of corporations. Whether we resist constant compulsory connection or revel in it or both, we are living outside her novels’ theological and political categories.


DO THESE LIMITS MATTER? It seems almost ungrateful to point them out. Robinson already stirs our souls with her stories of solitude and hard-won hope; does she really have to write beautifully about community and politics as well?

Joan Acocella says no. In her review of Lila in The New Yorker, she admits that “Robinson’s use of politics is … to some extent, a weakness of the Gilead novels.” But Acocella argues that the political limits of Robinson’s religious vision don’t matter because Robinson’s mystical insight is so strong: “Robinson writes about religion two ways. One is meliorist, reformist. The other is rapturous, visionary. Many people have been good at the first kind; few at the second kind, at least today. The second kind is Robinson’s forte. She knows this, and works it.”

I agree with Acocella that Robinson works it, and furthermore that her work gives us painful insights into the spiritually corrosive effects of poverty that “meliorist, reformist” writing rarely does. There is a dire need for lamentation in liberal Protestantism, and I am immeasurably grateful to Robinson for supplying it. But I also believe that Robinson’s political limitations matter a great deal, because she has been cast as a public religious voice and conscience by so many, and has taken on this role for herself both inside and outside her novels. And since she has been heralded as the best contemporary expression of public Christianity, it matters what she is leaving out or getting wrong.

As it happens, one of the things she gets wrong is the politics of race. In saying this I don’t mean what my friend Jess Row argues in his Boston Review essay “White Flights”: that Robinson, like many other post-1960 white writers, assumes “a systematically, if not intentionally, denuded, sanitized landscape, at least when it comes to matters of race,” or that in her novels “whiteness is once again normative, invisible, unquestioned, and unthreatened.” Row uses persuasive examples from Housekeeping to bookend his essay, but his critique is inapplicable to Gilead and Home. Their racial problem is quite different.

The race problem in the Iowa trilogy is not that Robinson ignores non-white people and their violent eviction from white landscapes and white religion. Gilead and Home are Robinson’s attempt to reckon with that horrible history. She mourns the ethical declension that turned the multi-racial abolitionist outposts of the 1850s into the white sundown towns of the 1950s. She repeatedly shows us the traces of racial terror on the Iowa farmland and the hushed-up events led to this “denuded, sanitized landscape”—the burning embers of black churches and the black flights through and from Gilead, from slavery days to Jim Crow. Race is likewise at the center of the novels’ plots and their family dramas: Ames’s grandfather was a John-Brown-style radical abolitionist who attended black churches because the preaching was better, but Ames’s pacifist father disavowed that militant legacy, creating a bitter rift. Meanwhile Jack Boughton, the prodigal son of Ames’s best friend, is secretly and illegally married to a black woman and they have a son, which is why he believes he can never be fully received back into his white family.

Furthermore, the problem is not that Robinson fails to call whites to account for their racial complacency. The character of Jack Boughton allows her to indict the kind of white Christian obliviousness that is effectively white Christian racism. When Jack shows Ames a picture of his black wife and child to try to gauge how his own father might respond to having an interracial family, Ames realizes that even after a lifetime of friendship he has no idea how his best friend would react: “Now, the fact is, I don’t know how old Boughton would take all this. It surprised me to realize that. I think it is an issue we never discussed in all our years of discussing everything. It just didn’t come up.” When Ames observes that interracial marriage is legal in Iowa, Jack indulges in a bitter aside: “Yes, Iowa, the shining star of radicalism.” Except for Ames, Jack keeps his secret to himself, but he talks to his sister about W.E.B. DuBois and pushes his minister father to take responsibility for racial injustice, telling him about the murder of Emmett Till, and quoting an article that argues that “the seriousness of American Christianity was called into question by our treatment of the Negro.” His father inadequately responds that if black people are good Christians, “then we can’t have done so badly by them, can we?” Jack deferentially disagrees. Through Jack, Robinson endorses a racial standard as a valid one for assessing the seriousness of white American Christianity, and she shows us how her white characters fail to live up to it.

But even as Jack demonstrates the limits of his family’s racial vision, he inadvertently shows the limits of Robinson’s as well. When I was re-reading Home recently I stumbled on a curious and troubling anachronism in the novel’s account of the Civil Rights Movement. In a dramatic passage, a TV broadcast of a brutal police crackdown on black protesters in Montgomery prompts a fraught racial conversation between Jack and his father and sister. The problem is that the events Robinson describes bear no resemblance to what actually happened in Montgomery in 1956. What really happened was a yearlong bus boycott that was sparked by Rosa Parks, supported by a coalition of churches and community organizations, and sustained by tens of thousands of ordinary people: ‘‘the nameless cooks and maids who walked endless miles for a year to bring about the breach in the walls of segregation,” in the words of Montgomery activist Mary Fair Burks. Instead, Robinson erroneously represents “Montgomery” as a violent showdown between cops, dogs, and black children, much like what happened in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham seven years later.

This strange substitution begins when Jack is standing on the sidewalk watching a TV in the window of the hardware store, transfixed by “the silently fulminating authorities and the Negro crowds.” He tells his sister it is “Montgomery,” and though this makes chronological sense since the novel is set in 1956, it is unclear how the image on the screen corresponds with a bus boycott. Later Jack watches the news with his father and sister at home:

On the screen white police with riot sticks were pushing and dragging black demonstrators. There were dogs.

His father said, “There’s no reason to let that sort of trouble upset you. In six months nobody will remember one thing about it.”

Jack said, “Some people will probably remember it.” …

Police were pushing the black crowd back with dogs, turning fire hoses on them. Jack said, “Jesus Christ!”

His father shifted in his chair. “That kind of language has never been acceptable in this house.”

Jack said, “I—” as if he were about to say more. But he stopped himself. “Sorry.”

On the screen an official was declaring his intention to enforce the letter of the law. Jack said something under his breath, then glanced at his father.

Later Jack tries to explain his agitation to his sister Glory: “I shouldn’t have said what I did. But things keep getting worse—” She thinks he means his father’s health, but he clarifies: “No. No, I mean the dogs. The fire hoses. Fire hoses. There were kids—” Glory reassures him, “None of that will be a problem for you if you stay here.” He replies, “Oh Glory, it’s a problem. Believe me. It’s a problem.”

So: In a scene in which remembering “Montgomery” is equated with racial awareness, and forgetting it is equated with racial obliviousness, Robinson “forgets” Montgomery, or at least remembers it as something very different. This is not just a slip-up about a name; it is a series of counterfactual descriptions. In 1963, when Birmingham cops attacked young people with dogs and water cannons, the images were considered so shocking and unprecedented that they appeared on the front page of newspapers around the country, and a couple years later in 1965 ABC interrupted a broadcast of Judgment at Nuremberg to show footage of white police in riot gear using billy clubs to beat black protesters on Bloody Sunday in Selma. But neither the police attacks nor the media events happened in 1956. As Jack would say: “Believe me. It’s a problem.” But what does it mean?

One answer, a simple and troubling enough answer, is that Robinson simply made a mistake—one that reflects the limits of her racial attention. Robinson mixes up Montgomery and Birmingham because her precision when it comes to figurative language or classic theology doesn’t extend to major events in American racial history. For decades she has immersed herself in rigorous reading of Calvin and Shakespeare and the Puritans and the Latin Vulgate, but she hasn’t read enough about the Civil Rights Movement to get it right; Calvin is clear but black people are a blur. And insofar as she is using undifferentiated black people on TV as a way to throw her white characters’ moral development into relief, it might not much matter to her what happened in Montgomery. It’s also possible that she decided that conflating the facts would work better to characterize her white characters, so she silently changed them. Either way, she could be seen as illustrating Toni Morrison’s critique in Playing in the Dark of “the way black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them.” Morrison sees white writers’ ubiquitous instrumental invocation of blackness as a “sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains.” (Robinson’s potentially sinister imprecision is further blurred in Acocella’s New Yorker review: Acocella inaccurately refers to the Montgomery bus boycott as “the Montgomery riots” and calls the black people on TV “rioters.”)

I believe Morrison’s theory about white writers and blackness applies to Gilead and Home, but I suspect Robinson’s propensity for “playing in the dark” is not the whole explanation of why she gets this history so wrong. I believe her failure to represent the real Montgomery is evidence of something else as well, something much closer to the core of her tragic, individualistic theology. I think it speaks to the perilous political tendencies of her particular version of Calvinism.

Unlike versions of Christianity which see suffering as something to be resisted or triumphed over, Calvinism tends to view both suffering and grace as arbitrary, mysterious, and predestined. The forces of fate are inscrutable and immense; the capacity of human agency is comparatively small. Perhaps because of her acute awareness of the cosmic imbalance of power between the human and the divine, Robinson represents religious faith less as a spur to action and more as a beautiful individual reckoning with inevitable loss and anguish. Above all, her writing honors an individual’s submission to the deepest sorrow in order to plumb all the meaning it will yield.

Over and over again, Robinson’s characters find a kind of peace in accepting their arduous lot: Ames spends decades praying in an empty house without seeking the comfort of a human touch; Glory gives up her dreams of a husband and home of her own with a sighed “Ah, well”; Jack painfully accepts exile from both his white and black families without ever telling his sister or father his racial secret, or opening the door to the possibility of embodied beloved community. We watch him as he walks away into an emptied world, Christ-like in his weary submission to his fate: “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face. Ah, Jack.”

Robinson teaches us that these resignations, these “Ah, [fill in the blank]” moments, are their own redemptive reward. Over and over again, in a paradoxical pattern that Amy Hungerford calls Robinson’s “logic of absence,” the novels state that lack is its own fulfillment; loss its own restoration; sorrow its own solace. As Robinson writes in Housekeeping, “need can blossom into all the compensation it requires,” or, as Lila says, “fear and comfort could be the same thing.” In surrendering themselves to the passion of loneliness, in nourishing themselves with a spiritual imagination that turns the stones of sorrow into bread, Robinson’s characters find grace in the midst of death and dearth. In the world’s fallenness, they envision a paradise regained.

When you consider Robinson’s deep disinterest in embodied communities and profound interest in the aesthetics and theology of resignation, it makes sense that a successful boycott could never be represented in her fiction. Robinson ignores black community organizing in Montgomery for some of the same reasons she ignores the white congregation in Gilead: she is not interested in representing embodied collective life. But beyond that, her displacement of the Montgomery bus boycott with images of brutality and suffering seems almost predestined by her theology. She is replacing a story of black people successfully coming together to transform their society with images of black people enduring pain inflicted by the powers that be. The protesters in her Montgomery do not walk together with tired feet and rested souls for 381 days. Instead they are passive objects of violence, pushed and dragged by police. (Robinson’s fictionalization of the Civil Rights Movement is entirely reduced to these brief images of black suffering: her novels do not include speeches, sermons, sit-ins, strategies, meetings, music, marches, legal battles, freedom rides, or voter registration drives.) Though Robinson mentions Rosa Parks in her essays, her novels dwell on the private, pious perspectives of white people who resemble Oseola McCarty. She is not interested in telling the stories of people who fight their fate, alone or together.

Still, Robinson is unparalleled at finding meaning and beauty in suffering and deprivation. This is why her novels are so heart-wrenchingly gorgeous. It is also why they are troubling when they are used to define religion or politics for our time, or when they are claimed as a public conscience for the oppressed and voiceless. There are dangers both in what she leaves out of her fiction and what she puts into it. And the beauty and peril of Robinson’s vision can be seen with stunning clarity in the last pages of Home.

A few days after Jack has left Gilead, probably forever, his wife and son, Della and Robert, show up at his family home looking for him. Glory, who knows that Jack has a wife but does not know she is black, doesn’t recognize who they are at first. When Della asks after Jack and finds he is gone, she prepares to go away in silent sadness without explaining who she is (ah, Della). But Glory, yearning for an impossible momentary connection, stops her: “You’re Della, aren’t you. You’re Jack’s wife.” They talk together about Jack in a reserved, tentative, heartrending way. Glory chats with her nephew about baseball, and he reverently touches a tree in his father’s yard, “just to touch it.” Tears are quietly shed and wiped away. And then Della and Robert leave without ever walking in the front door. As Della explains, they have to leave before sundown: “We have the boy with us. His father wouldn’t want us to be taking any chances.”

Overcome in their absence, Glory sits on the porch steps and reflects on her meeting with her black family. She is overwhelmed by a sense of the cruelty of the situation and her own inability to make it different: “Dear Lord in heaven, she could never change anything.” In a moment of empathetic imagination, she sees Gilead through Della’s eyes, grieving that Della “felt she had to come into Gilead as if it were a foreign and a hostile country.” Her own sense of her home is transformed, made alien. And then, in the last paragraphs of the novel, Glory consoles herself for her own sadness and for Jack’s and Robert’s and Della’s, as members of a family torn apart by racist anti-miscegenation laws and Jim Crow. In a rapturous vision of imagined connection, Glory pictures her nephew’s brief return, decades into the future: “Maybe this Robert will come back someday. … And he will be very kind to me. … He will talk to me a little while, too shy to tell me why he has come, and then he will thank me and leave, walking backward a few steps, thinking, … This was my father’s house. And I will think, He is young. He cannot know that my whole life has come down to this moment.”

This is the power and inadequacy of Robinson’s racial vision. An empathetic encounter with a black person can totally transform a white person’s view of their own place in the world; and a dream of interracial connection (however partial and temporary) is enough to give meaning to a white person’s entire life, and incidentally to wrap up the worn and ragged threads of the novel. It’s a lovely liberal reverie, and its limits make it even more poignant: even in her wildest dreams, Glory can’t imagine Robert being welcomed into his white father’s childhood home. But Glory does nothing to make even this modest fantasy of a family reunion come true. The dream of Robert’s return is so consoling to her, so meaningful, that for Glory’s emotional purposes, and for the purposes of the novel, it doesn’t much matter whether it actually happens. The mere longing is enough: It feels more satisfying than any real attempt at interracial community or racial justice could ever be. Actual black people need never displace the shy, grateful, undemanding black man of Glory’s dreams.

This kind of consolation can be captivating, if you identify with Glory and not with Robert or Della, and if you don’t think too much about the implications. And of course, characters and novels don’t have to be moral models. We can love Glory and Home without following in their steps. But as I write in the wake of mass protests against racial injustice in Ferguson and New York and around the world, I can’t accept unfulfilled cravings, empathetic fantasies, and suffering beautifully borne as the best possible public Christianity for our age.


I WILL FOREVER READ all the fiction Robinson writes. We who love her books read them because they give us what we miss, a specter of a stripped simplicity we’ve lost or never had, imbued with a fullness of meaning that we can hardly bear. I’ve barely quoted Robinson in this essay because I suspect that the sheer beauty of her words would overwhelm any criticism I could possibly make. Writing about Montgomery and what it means has been like trying to pry her books out of my own hands. But I know that when I close Robinson’s novels and step out of the baptismal pool of her pages, I re-enter a world I could never find in Gilead: a world full of struggling and striving people of every religion and race, classrooms full of clamorous voices, bright threads of friendship woven across the Internet, and wild desires for change and justice and beloved community that overcome all my half-hearted attempts at relentless resolute Calvinist resignation.

Novels can be partial and still be perfect, but religion needs to be practical. These are beautiful novels, complete in themselves, but insofar as they are held up as a political and ethical example they are far from enough. We need to read Marilynne Robinson, but we need to read Morrison too, and so many others. And we need to imagine a more capacious and yet unwritten vision of grace for our moment. We need a grace large enough to extend to those who prefer churches with people in them; a religious sensibility that is finely attuned enough to care when and where people are staging boycotts or facing down cops and dogs for freedom, and new prophetic voices that will inspire us to join them.

I read Lila in a day, marveling in the quiet words, sometimes stopping to wait for my tears to subside so I could see the page. Some sentences I read aloud to myself so I could hear them spoken, just as Reverend Ames read aloud during his long decades of solitude. I copied bright phrases into a commonplace book like Lila copying the prophecies of Ezekiel in her ruined cabin. In the end, I was grateful to have ached and starved and wept with Lila, and I was ready to let her go.


Briallen Hopper is a Lecturer in English at Yale and the Faculty Fellow at the University Church in Yale.  

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Ebola and U.S. Hospital Chaplains: A (Deliberately) Untold Story Tue, 16 Dec 2014 16:05:48 +0000 (Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/AP Images)

(Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/AP Images)

In August, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, medical missionaries who were serving in Liberia, arrived at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital. The facility was the first to treat Ebola patients on American soil, and in the early days there was no shortage of public criticism. “People responded viscerally on social media, fearing that we risked spreading Ebola to the United States,” wrote Emory’s head of nursing in The Washington Post. Later that month, a poll by the Harvard School of Public Health found that four in ten adults still feared a massive U.S. Ebola outbreak. Even as the staff performed their duties with confidence, the Rev. Robin Brown-Haithco, the hospital’s director of spiritual health, could sense anxiety among some of the personnel. So she wrote a two-page letter reminding employees what was easy to forget: why their work matters.

In her memo, distributed to the entire clinical staff, Brown-Haithco invited healthcare professionals to compare their own vocation with that of the missionaries, who followed their callings to help those in need in Liberia. “When Emory heard that same call a little over a week ago, we also knew there was only one way to respond,” she wrote. “We knew it was our ethical and moral responsibility to open our doors to receive the missionary aid workers and to provide the care we provide for all who come through our doors. We responded, not because it would bring notoriety or fame, but because it is our calling as a health care institution.”

In the days that followed, many healthcare workers talked with Brown-Haithco about their vocations. These conversations often mirrored the tone she had set in her memo, neither ignoring the risks of treating Ebola patients nor succumbing to panic. A calling doesn’t exclude fear, she explained, but fear “does not prevent us from moving with compassion toward someone in need.”

Neither does fear encourage a dull news cycle. When the Ebola outbreak began, the American public heard from doctors, nurses, public health experts, and WHO officials. Once healthcare workers were diagnosed in Dallas, we heard about PPE procedures, CDC guidelines, and airport screenings. We heard about hospital employees in New York who faced discrimination for working near an infected patient, and about the exotic dancers who started a GoFundMe account to support their voluntarily quarantine. Most recently, we heard about the $27,000 the city of Dallas spent taking care of Bentley, the beloved dog of Dallas nurse and recovered Ebola patient, Nina Pham.

But during the initial frenzy of U.S. Ebola coverage, we didn’t hear much about hospital chaplains, the members of hospital teams tasked with providing spiritual and emotional support to patients, their families, and medical staff. According to university estimates, there were 42,410 stories mentioning Emory and Ebola published between July 31 and September 22; Brown-Haithco and her chaplain colleagues were interviewed four times, including a segment with Matt Lauer that never aired.

And really, the public isn’t supposed to hear from chaplains: Chaplains are trained to keep a low profile, remaining calm in health crises, not interfering with the lifesaving work of medical personnel. Professional chaplaincy standards emphasize sensitivity, respect for boundaries, and self-awareness, managing and minimizing one’s own emotions and religious preferences to better respond to the needs of others. A chaplain’s work isn’t flashy: listening, praying, and simply being present to those who suffer.

Not to mention: the dual confines of HIPAA and clergy confidentiality limit the information chaplains are allowed to share—hardly ideal interviewees for eager reporters.

Yet, silence isn’t absence. In the five American hospitals that have treated Ebola patients, chaplains have been a key part of the healthcare team, quietly alleviating anxiety amid national paranoia, tackling loneliness amid clinical isolation, and protecting patient privacy amid intense public scrutiny. And although these chaplains have taken their responsibility to the U.S.’s 10 Ebola patients seriously, they are also mindful of the larger health crisis at hand—a global epidemic that has infected more than 18,000 people and claimed the lives of more than 7,000.


IN LATE OCTOBER, I talked with the Rev. Paul Steinke, a Lutheran pastor and chaplain at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. It had been a week since his hospital admitted its first Ebola patient, Dr. Craig Spencer, a Doctors Without Borders volunteer who had been treating Ebola patients in Guinea. “It’s kind of nuts,” Steinke said. “Thirteen thousand people in three African countries have Ebola; we only have one patient. There are still video trucks outside.”

As he saw it, there was nothing newsworthy about a hospital treating an infectious patient. “We’re a hospital. This is what we do. We take care of sick people,” Steinke said. He added: “And we do a damn good job of it.”

The Rev. Joyce Miller, also a Lutheran pastor, works as a chaplain at Nebraska Medical Center, which has cared for three Ebola patients to date—medical missionary Dr. Rick Sacra and NBC cameraman Ashoka Mukpo, who both recovered, and Dr. Martin Salia, a surgeon serving in Sierra Leone, who died in November. She concurred with Steinke’s assessment that much of the fear surrounding Ebola patients is unwarranted: “I’ve been in chaplaincy long enough to know that I have gone through outbreaks of HIV/AIDS, influenza, RSV, and all kinds of stuff that has scared people,” she said. “It’s scary stuff, but the biggest danger is our fear and the best way to deal with that is education. So, yes, this is another health crisis, but it’s what we do.”

And I heard this same unflappable, business-as-usual approach when I asked chaplains how best to minister to Ebola patients. “I don’t know that I see my role with an Ebola patient any differently than I do with a patient who is here for a stem cell transplant,” said John M. Pollack, a Catholic deacon and chief of the spiritual care department at the National Institute of Health Clinical Center in Maryland where nurse Nina Pham was treated and later released. “I think largely the greatest spiritual issues we encounter here are loneliness and despair. And those are universal questions that come with a rupture in health,” Pollack explained. “This is a different disease than we were used to seeing, but the spiritual issues are very much the same.”

Paul Steinke agreed. He said the best way to care for any patient is the “old-fashioned, chaplain-talking-to-patient” approach. The only real trick was doing that within isolation guidelines. Chaplains, like patients’ family, could not interact with Ebola patients face-to-face due to the intense training required to meet CDC requirements. The chaplains instead turned to technology. Due to HIPAA, none of the chaplains could confirm whether they had contact with Ebola patients, but Pollack said that “in the event that we had a patient in isolation where it would be unsafe for a chaplain to work with a patient, then we would use Facetime or Skype.” Other chaplains indicated that if an Ebola patient wanted to speak with a chaplain they would use the telephone.

But chaplains weren’t the only ones who wanted to minister to the patients. As attitudes about treating Ebola patients shifted from national anxiety to approval, the chaplains were faced with a new problem: how to handle the well-meaning community groups who wished to show their support for Ebola patients—often in ways the hospital could not accommodate.

Steinke said someone mailed him a box of stones inscribed with words like “hope” and “faith” and requested that the stones be delivered to the Ebola patient in isolation. But quarantine procedures made the sender’s request impossible. And besides, people don’t want inspirational rocks, Steinke said. “People in the hospital want a connection with a human being that can talk to them.”

At Emory, Brown-Haithco reported there were church groups, especially among Atlanta’s Liberian Christians, that wanted to host prayer vigils in the hospital’s small, interfaith chapel. She ultimately had to turn all the religious groups away. “We wanted to protect our campus and protect our other patients and our other families and their privacy,” Brown-Haithco told me. The hospital chapel was intended primarily for patients and staff, not the city. She encouraged groups to pray for Ebola patients around the world—at their own churches.

During the Ebola ordeal, Emory’s hospital administration invited chaplains to join their leadership team meetings—something the chaplains described as “unprecedented.” The Rev. George Grant, who oversees spiritual health throughout the Emory network, said the chaplains’ inclusion points to a growing acceptance of integrative healthcare, a model that considers patients’ mental and emotional wellbeing alongside physical needs. His chaplaincy staff encouraged the hospital administration to be sensitive to the medical personnel’s emotional needs and to the Ebola patients’ faith traditions. “There’s something about persons of other disciplines gathering together and having those disciplines cooperate, collaborate toward this whole person health perspective,” Grant said. “That took us into another kind of level of care that Emory heretofore has not been about.”

Dr. Arthur Kleinman, a physician and anthropologist at Harvard, said that the growing inclusion of chaplains—religious professionals—in mainstream healthcare isn’t so unusual. He cited the large number of programs dedicated to spirituality and health at a number of elite universities. “We’ve become more fluid in moving back and forth between values and professions, between technical practices and moral practices,” he said. “And I think it’s not surprising then that rather the separate the sacred and the secular, we’re more comfortable seeing them connected.”


IN ATLANTA, SHORTLY AFTER Brantly was declared Ebola-free, a local news station produced a three-minute segment focusing on the role of divine intercession in his recovery. “Instead of getting down on himself, going into a depression, he looked to a higher power: his faith,” says the reporter, as the camera slowly pans to a church steeple on the Atlanta skyline. “People here in Georgia, the U.S., and around the world prayed with him.” The segment, entitled “Power of Prayer,” featured a snippet from Brantly’s press conference, in which he said, “God saved my life—a direct answer to thousands and thousands of prayers.”

Brown-Haithco, who was also interviewed for the segment, was frustrated with the shallow portrait of prayer the segment seemed to offer. If prayer is powerful when a patient recovers, what do we say when a patient prays but still gets sicker? As professionals caring for the critically ill, hospital chaplains are all-too-aware that prayer doesn’t guarantee medical miracles. Prayer is “not just the traditional form of prayer where we have our hands together and we’re on bended knee, praying to a deity,” Brown-Haithco said. “For us, prayer is about accompaniment. It’s about journeying with people in critical and dark times.”

Ultimately, this kind of prayer is the heart of a chaplain’s work: they don’t try to heal people—they leave that to the medical staff. Instead, chaplains simply listen to people who are suffering and give them a place talk about what they’re experiencing. “I think once that pain is able to be expressed to someone who is able to listen, I often think the pain dissipates,” said John Pollack. “I wouldn’t say that it goes away completely, but I would say that it’s a sharing of the burden.”

Chaplains know that the world does not share Ebola’s burden evenly. “We have been barely touched by Ebola in this country,” said Miller at Nebraska Medical Center. “My pain is that this is very much a crisis in Africa and we don’t see one quarter of the coverage of what’s happening there, except maybe some fear-mongering stuff that we should seal our borders and that will fix the problem—and it won’t.”

Pollack pointed to the high level of medical care that has boosted Ebola survival rates in the U.S. and Europe. “There is a troubling sense of inequity that it’s not also the same case for the people who are suffering with this in West Africa,” he said. He praised the “compassionate response of caregivers,” like Doctors Without Borders volunteers who traveled to West Africa and N.I.H’s own staff who volunteered to serve in the isolation unit. “That’s a tremendously courageous thing to do and it really does come from a place of compassion, which in my view really emanates from God.”

Brown-Haithco agreed. When I asked her where she has seen God, she responded: “Right smack in the middle.” She cited the doctors and nurses at Emory who volunteered to treat Ebola patients even though there was no known cure. “They walked voluntarily into that situation with their own fear,” she said. “But they went anyway.”


Betsy Shirley writes about religion, faith, and social justice. She studies American religious history at Yale Divinity School. Follow her @BetsyShirley.

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Do Liberals Always Win? An Interview with Stephen Prothero Wed, 10 Dec 2014 19:04:33 +0000 (Washington University in St. Louis)

(Washington University in St. Louis)

On October 23, Stephen Prothero spoke at Washington University in St. Louis as part of the Danforth Distinguished Lectures, sponsored by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics. Prothero is a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University and an author of numerous books, including The New York Times bestseller, Religious Literacy: What Americans Need to Know. He contributes regularly to popular media outlets, including USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, and CNN’s Belief Blog. A historian specializing in American religion, Prothero’s current projects include his upcoming book titled, Why Liberals Win: America’s Culture Wars from the Election of 1800 to Same-Sex Marriage, which was the basis for his lecture.

During his visit, Prothero sat down with R&P’s Jack West for an interview. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

R&P: Your lecture at Washington University in St. Louis has quite a provocative title: “Why Liberals Win: America’s Culture Wars from the Election of 1800 to Same-Sex Marriage.” Can you explain to R&P readers in a few distilled points why liberals win?

SP: The book that I’m working on looks at the culture wars as a recurring phenomenon in American history, from the early nineteenth century to the present. In all the cases I look at, the culture wars are started on the right and won on the left. The reason, I think, for that is that conservatives, in picking these fights and starting these culture wars, typically choose issues that are already going the other way because it puts them inside this narrative of loss and recovery, where the society is moving away from their traditional values. It suits them to pick subjects where they are already losing. If they pick subjects they are already winning, then the complaint that is inherent in this narrative of loss and recovery doesn’t resonate. So they pick an issue such as, ‘There are too many Catholics in America,” at a time when the Catholic population is growing relatively quickly to the point that Catholics are going to become mainstreamed into American life. If they had picked that fight earlier, there would not have been enough Catholics to reasonably be worried about them, and if they picked it later, no one would have cared. They pick it right at the moment when they are losing, and it seems that this recurs and is part of the reason why liberals seem to win these battles.

R&P: Why do those on the right choose that specific moment to raise an issue? Is it to paint themselves as victims?

SP: Yes. Culture wars are often seen as these battles between liberals and conservatives over cultural questions. But I see them more as dramas that are produced and acted in by conservatives. They are conservative projects whose purpose is to drum up support from traditionalists in society who perceive that something precious is being lost to them, and that something precious changes over the course of history. It might be the traditional family, with a man at its center. It might be a society in which the leaders are all white. It might be a society in which the important figures are Protestants. In order to activate that anxiety, which is an important part of my book, which is going to create a political upsurge for your party, you need to find an issue that will agitate peoples’ emotions. The moment of highest agitation seems to be the moment when it’s becoming clear that the liberals are starting to win, the conservative complaint kicks in, but lo and behold, the liberals actually do win. It is a fixed game. It’s not really a fair fight because the conservatives are not picking the issues on which they are winning, which are many. In my lifetime, conservatives have done better than liberals on many political issues. But on questions in the culture wars, they tend to pick the issues that they are losing or are about to lose.

R&P: This lecture stems from your upcoming book of the same title. What led you to pursue this research and this topic?

SP: It started for me in the Ground Zero Mosque controversy. There was a lot of debate whether Muslims could build this Islamic community center a few blocks from ground zero in lower Manhattan. I followed the debate because I have always been interested in church-state questions. I was very surprised when it shifted from being a local issue to a national issue, and when some of the leading members of the Republican Party began weighing in against the mosque. I was surprised because it was a clear-cut case where you had two issues deeply held in American society that were in favor of the Muslims who wanted to build the mosque: first, was private property rights—they owned the land—and second was religious liberty. It surprised me that there was so much agitation about it. Since I’m a historian, I tried to understand it in a historical context, by going back and looking at these moments in the past. The moment I discovered was when Thomas Jefferson was accused of being Muslim in the election of 1800, so Barack Obama is not the first American president to be accused of being Muslim. So that is how I got started looking at culture wars before the Islam wars.

R&P: That is very intriguing. Do you think that a lack of religious literacy contributes to some of these religion-state issues, especially with Muslims?

SP: Yes, I think that’s part of it. If we knew more about Islam, which, as a society, we know almost nothing, the culture wars around Islam would be different. They would be more sophisticated. However, we had a huge battle about slavery that was conducted to a great extent around the Bible, and both sides seemed to understand that if they lost that biblical debate, they would lose the slavery debate. People really understood the Bible, not just intellectuals, but ordinary people could comprehend the arguments for and against slavery that could be marshaled based on the Bible. I do not know how the Islam wars would play out differently, other than the fact that they would be more sophisticated. I think some of the dumb arguments would go away, but you would also probably find some smarter arguments against Islam that would potentially take their place. In two other culture wars I address in the book, the anti-Catholicism movement in the early nineteenth century and the anti-Mormonism of the later nineteenth century, both have a quality of talking past each other, where the Protestants, who are typically the conservatives in those culture wars arguing against Catholics and Mormons, stick to their talking points about those traditions and to the stereotypes against them. They didn’t know a lot of Catholics or Mormons. I think if they had had better Catholic or Mormon literacy, those conflicts may have played out differently. But like I said, sometimes that would have provided more arguments rather than fewer. I don’t believe that if we knew more about religion that all of our religious problems would go away. I think sometimes people kill each other for religious reasons because they don’t understand the other religion, but sometimes they also kill each other because they do understand the other religion. So I’m not sure religious literacy is much of a fix for religious violence. I think it is a start, but it does not do that work by itself.

R&P: You have been an advocate of religious literacy. Why do you think Americans generally lack a basic understanding of religions? Has it been something that has been happening throughout history, or is it a relatively new phenomenon because, like you mentioned earlier, during the early nineteenth century, both sides had a very competent understanding of the religious arguments surrounding the slavery debate.

SP: The religious right argues that religious literacy goes away in the early 1960s because of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court bans devotional Bible reading and prayer in public schools in 1962 and 1963, which critics argue essentially exiles God from public schools so that they are now religion-free zones. Now, children grow up not only without a reverence for God, but also without an understanding of the Bible and Christianity. The argument I make about religious literacy is that the story actually begins a century earlier. The villains are not secular people in the Supreme Court but actually religious people. It is caused by the Second Great Awakening and the replacement of Puritanism by Evangelicalism as the dominant religious impulse in the country. Before the Second Great Awakening, there was always this conversation among Christians between the head and the heart, trying to get a religion that was both intellectually sound and emotionally resonant. But with the Second Great Awakening comes this new form of religion that really prioritizes feeling and emphasizes loving Jesus rather than knowing what Jesus had to say. This is when religious literacy starts to go away. It doesn’t really matter much what Christianity teaches, what matters is how it feels to be in a relationship with Jesus. Simultaneously, as you have that shift from knowing the doctrine of your tradition to feeling intensely about God, there is a shift toward morality where the focus of the tradition becomes making the society more Protestant by using voluntary associations to get rid of slavery, to make the schools better, to improve prisons. In order to do that, it is important for people to downplay denominational differences. You don’t really want to bring up the distinctions between Methodists and Lutherans because you want both denominations to work together to get the Bible printed and distributed or to do the work of the American Tract Society. So that also pushed people away from conversations about doctrine. As the theology side of religion starts to go away, our collective memory starts to atrophy. That really happens over the course of the nineteenth century.

R&P: How do you think increased religious literacy, not only for the various denominations of Christianity, but also for other major world religions, would change the political landscape in the United States?

SP: I think of the religious literacy problem as happening in two arenas, domestic and foreign. On the domestic side, we have two religious political parties. Since 2004, the Democrats have started doing with religion what the Republicans have been doing since the late 1970s: invoking God, the Bible, and Jesus to support their public policy and politicians. Then we have a public that does not know enough about the Bible or Christianity to dispute whether what they say makes any sense. So when Hillary Clinton says she opposes a Republican initiative on immigration that would demand that citizens turn in undocumented immigrants because of the Good Samaritan story, because the Good Samaritan story tells us to take care of the strangers in our midst and not to turn them in to the authorities, how do we know whether that makes any sense? Many don’t know enough about what the Good Samaritan story says to make a decision. Similarly, politicians will do this with abortion. “Why are you opposed to Roe v. Wade?” “Well, because I am a Bible-believing Christian.” Well, what does the Bible have to do with abortion? What does it say about abortion? If you read the Bible, it doesn’t say very much. Neither, by the way, does it say much about marginal income tax rates, which we also try to debate on the basis of the Bible. You asked how the political landscape would be affected by more religious literacy, and I think that if we were more religiously literate, we would have a lot less Bible-talk and religion in our public space because the silly God-talk would go away.

R&P: They couldn’t make those claims based on religion anymore.

SP: Yes, people would say, “That doesn’t make any sense, we know that it doesn’t make sense to invoke the Bible on that issue because the Bible doesn’t say anything about that issue.” Or, they would be able to say, “Yes, we know you win that argument on the basis of the Bible, we know you have all the goods there.” I think that would have a huge effect, and, of course, it would elevate our capacity to engage in those debates so they would start to look like the slavery debate of the nineteenth century, which was very sophisticated on both sides.

On the international side, the problem is not that we don’t know enough about Christianity and the Bible, it’s that we don’t know anything about Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism. We can’t really understand what is going in the Middle East or Kashmir or Myanmar or Tibet or wherever we might want to look, because in all those places religion is powerful and a real force politically, economically and militarily. If we had more religious literacy, we would be able to make much better calculations about what we should do, in terms of our foreign policy. There is an argument to be made that we might not have gone into Iraq or Afghanistan if we had understood Islam better. Maybe we would have, but I don’t think we understood what we needed to know about the difference between Sunni and Shia when we initiated those wars. If we had known more, we might not have gone in. Similarly, if we had known more, we might have been much more successful then what we have been.

R&P: In the past, you have advocated teaching religion in public schools. What are the benefits, and how do you think it could be implemented in a sustainable manner? There has been some criticism that teachers would allow their own biases to reflect in the course.

SP: The benefit of a world religions course in high school is to address the international problem, which I mentioned earlier, so that we could better understand what is going on in the world. We would know how to act as better citizens, we would know how to vote and could more effectively criticize our leaders. If you live in a religious world, you have to know something about religion to make sense of it. A public school course on the world’s religions would address that problem so that more would know that the Quran is the holy book of Islam, whereas only half of Americans know that right now, according to the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey that was done by the Pew Forum in 2010. We lack such basic information, that we can’t engage in these debates.

As far as how it is sustainable, obviously you need people who are trained, which is a problem because we don’t have a lot of people able to teach a high school course on religion. You have a perception problem as well, where a lot of people think that this course would be unconstitutional. In fact, only one-third of the people interviewed in that Pew survey knew that courses on world religions were constitutional—most thought it was illegal to teach religion in public schools. That is not true if you read what the Supreme Court has written. They have basically endorsed both Bible courses and world religions courses in Supreme Court opinions.

Then you have the problem of bias. As I read the First Amendment, you are not allowed to preach religion or atheism in public schools. So a course on world religions should not conclude that Jesus is Lord, that Allah is the one true God, or that religion is bunk. It should leave those truth questions open. It would be a problem if you had a teacher whose intent is on violating the First Amendment and proselytizing. But I think the scrutiny of these courses would be higher than it is now. Today, we have people violating the First Amendment in public schools. We have biology teachers who are violating the First Amendment by either preaching atheism or a fundamentalist understanding of creation. We have teachers in English schools that are violating the constitution by using conversations about the Bible to preach a particular religious understanding. Some of those things pass under the radar because they are not courses that have the word “religion” in their title. There would be a lot of scrutiny for courses on religion, so those people that would want to seize on that opportunity to push their religious point of view would be exposed pretty quickly.

R&P: You have made the point before that, for example, history teachers must set aside their party affiliations to teach a course on history. Is that similar to a teacher teaching a course on religion?

SP: With religion, you have to be even more careful. You don’t have a First Amendment that calls for the separation of historiography and the state, so there is a higher bar. You see this at state universities. I took courses in college from socialist historians. You knew that they understood history from the socialist perspective and they were not trying to be neutral, they were presenting their point of view. There is a huge place for them in college. In fact, some of the most interesting courses are taught by professors who have really strong points of view. They teach twentieth-century American history and they think that the New Deal is the pinnacle of twentieth-century American history. They are not trying to finish the course with you wondering whether or not they believe New Deal was a good thing. That’s admirable in some ways, and students can either take or leave it. With religion, due to the First Amendment and other reasons, we try really hard not only not to teach our biases but also hide them so effectively that at the end of the class we think we have succeeded if the students have no idea what our religious perspectives are. Religious studies, as a discipline, rely on an effort at objectivity. We need to maintain, in high schools and state universities in particular, this distinction between teaching religion and preaching religion.

R&P: In your last book, The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide and Define a Nation, you discuss specific texts that stir controversy and debate in the United States. What texts or speeches cause similar controversy in today’s politics and culture?

SP: We keep returning to a lot of classics. One interesting aspect about the texts in The American Bible is that they are used by both sides. They are sufficiently malleable, in a way like the Scriptures, hence the title, and, therefore, can be understood in a lot of different ways. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is seen as an argument for the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action. But people from Ronald Reagan forward have argued that the speech actually argues against affirmative action. When King talks about imagining a society in which we are all judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character, conservatives are saying, there you go: why should we be worried about the color of your skin when you apply to Washington University in St. Louis or when you apply for a job at IBM? The color of you skin should be irrelevant; there should be no affirmative action. The same goes for King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” That letter is an amazing combination of a lot of difference sources, religious and political, from the American tradition, Christian tradition and the Jewish tradition, from Protestants and Catholics. Sarah Palin has looked at that letter and said look at the way King combines religion and politics here, he doesn’t see a dividing line, he is not worrying about injecting too much Scripture or too much Christianity into American politics. If that is fair for people on the left like King, why shouldn’t that be fair for the Tea Party and Sarah Palin and other cultural conservatives? Why can’t they bring the Bible into the public space?

R&P: Do you think improved religious literacy would affect how these documents are interpreted and applied in today’s culture?

SP: Certainly. There are a couple ways to improve. One is the kind of literacy about the documents themselves. When we debate Huck Finn, which is also in The American Bible, some say it is the most racist book in American history and others say it is the most anti-racist book in American history. One of the problems is that a lot of people who engage in the debate have never actually read Huck Finn. If they had, the debates would be more sophisticated and our democracy would be stronger. One of the huge premises behind that project is that an assumption of our democracy is that we have informed citizens. As we vote and engage in politics, it is crucial to know something about the things we are debating. The problem is that we know less than we used to and our politics are more fragile because of it.

R&P: Continuing going through the books you have written, in God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World, you argue that the attempts to reconcile differing religions as different paths up the same mountain are, in fact, incorrect. You argue that they are disparate paths that achieve different things. Why is this an important distinction? How should this understanding affect interfaith work, specifically?

SP: It is an important distinction for reason of truth. It is just not true that the religions are basically the same. It is a misunderstanding. Almost always, when people make that claim, it sounds like a pluralistic statement. But when you follow up and have them describe what the religions are all about and what they share, invariably, that description becomes the religion of the person making the statement. “All the religions are one,” really means all the religions are basically like Christianity, or all the religions are basically like Judaism or Hinduism. There is a kind of intellectual imperialism, which is opposed to diversity and demands eliminating the distinctiveness of these traditions so that they conform to one another when, in reality, they don’t conform. There is a straightforward truth aspect. You want to let the traditions be what they are rather than pretending they are something else.

The other feature is that there is confusion about what creates interreligious rivalries and violence. Many assume it is religious difference. I don’t think that is true. Difference does not cause violence or war. We have always had difference, in every society. The student body here at WashU differ with each on all sorts of things, over what movies they think are good, what religions they affirm, or what politics they support. But that doesn’t mean they have to be at each other’s throats. The way we live in a society with difference is through various civic activities and ideologies of tolerance.

There is a confused hope in the “all religions are one” school that we can all be the same. There is a confusion about the danger of difference which is not as dangerous as many others think. The perennial philosophy school that says religions are the same and the clash of civilization school that say they are different, share the assumption that if there is difference, there will be warfare. I don’t think that is true. I prefer to let the religions do what they do, and observe that they are doing very different things.

R&P: With today’s global upheaval, which seems to be ever-present in the media, what is to be done about religious tolerance internationally?

SP: That’s the hard question. You certainly saved the hardest question for last. There is some pretty good evidence, from people who study genocide and the places where the danger of racial or ethnic killing is highest, that there is no civic engagement across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, or religion. If you look at areas that have experienced that kind of killing, it is typically lower in places that have integration. For example, if Muslims and Hindus are engaged in civic institutions, activities, and leadership together, then the probability of violence is much lower than in places that are completely separated. The premise is pretty simple and intuitive: people become humanized as you engage with them. Say you are hostile toward Muslims, and the first Muslim you meet seems to be a good person. You might be able to say, “Well, they are the exception.” But if you meet 12 Muslims and you start working with them on a library committee or a parks committee in the city, you start to see that they have families like yourself and they share in the effort to promote the civic goods that you are also promoting.

Another idea is this diffusion of tolerance, with which you started your question. It is a very laudable goal. However, there are a lot of people in academia who don’t see tolerance as such a good thing. They want what they call pluralism, where difference is celebrated as a positive good, rather then merely tolerated. But tolerance would be much better than what we have in a lot of places. I would add that, and I have written about this, tolerance is an empty virtue unless you actually know something about the people you are tolerating. If you claim to be tolerating Muslims or Christians or Buddhists, but you don’t understand much about them, that is very shallow and a probably less effective form of tolerance. 

R&P: Thank you very much for your time today.

SP: Thank you for your questions.

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Local Religious Leaders Respond to Ferguson Mon, 01 Dec 2014 19:23:40 +0000 (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

(AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, St. Louis County, on August 9, 2014, and especially since the November 24 announcement that the grand jury would not indict the police officer who shot him, the nation has been awash with anger and fear. Protests and calls for justice have amplified, most of them peaceful but some spilling over into destruction. Many people are insisting on concrete action and social change to meet the challenges and racial inequities of today; others, perhaps believing those inequities no longer real or relevant, resist such action along with the protests and call instead for healing. In the aftermath of these messy events and the political divisions they have highlighted, we invited a range of clergy and religious leaders in the St. Louis region to offer responses such as they have offered their own congregations. We asked: How are you and your faith community responding to these recent events? What does your religion call you to do during this time? Not everyone responded, but many did, despite the considerable duress they all face in this trying moment.

We present the following assorted reflections to our readers, which embody a spectrum of religious views and thoughtful approaches to the current situation in St. Louis and the nation. They are not representative of all viewpoints, but if there is a unified message to be found here, it is that these local faith leaders want unity for all people. It is a vision that will only be achieved when each person is treated with the same measure of fairness, justice, and human dignity as every other.

Rev. Rodney T. Francis, Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church

“Wake Up Everybody” was a popular anti-war song performed by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass as the lead vocalist. Written during the height of the Vietnam War, the song was a critique of our country’s seemingly apathetic stance toward the war’s impact on the domestic social disorder and unrest of the day. The song was a clarion call for change:

Wake up everybody, no more sleepin’ in bed
No more backward thinkin’ time for thinkin’ ahead
The world has changed so very much from what it used to be
So there is so much hatred war an’ poverty

Wake up all the teachers, time to teach a new way
Maybe then they’ll listen to whatcha have to say
‘Cause they’re the ones who’s coming up and the world is in their hands
When you teach the children, teach ‘em the very best you can

 The world won’t get no better
If we just let it be
The world won’t get no better
We gotta change it, yeah, just you and me

Given the unrest in Ferguson and urban communities around the country, the song could not be more prophetic. The international coverage has awakened many to the reality that there is a subculture of poor and disenfranchised young people of color who are disenchanted with the current state of affairs. These young people and their allies have proven they are willing to march, protest, disrupt, confront, agitate, loot, burn and stake their very lives on calling for change. One can debate the merits of their methods in expressing themselves and their frustration, but what is not debatable is their effectiveness. Since engaging their varied forms of protests, many have miraculously awakened. The governor has appointed the first African American to a cabinet level position in his administration, created a new Office of Community Engagement led by two African Americans, allocated funds for a youth summer jobs program to hire 2,000 low-income youth and convened a special Ferguson Commission. The Regional Chamber of Commerce and local corporations have offered to create job opportunities for disaffected youth. The U.S. Justice Department continues a regional investigation into unfair police and municipal practices, and national news outlets interrupted their regular programming to carry remarks from President Obama. Finally, the chain of global protests have drawn crowds into the thousands in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Boston, Atlanta, and London. Right or wrong, justifiable or not, if the intent was to wake everybody up, I’d say they have succeeded.

The world won’t get no better
If we just let it be
The world won’t get no better
We gotta change it, yeah, just you and me

Excerpt from a sermon using Nehemiah 2:17 as its foundational text, preached on August 24, 2014, at Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, St. Louis, MO.

Rev. Seán Charles Martin, president of Aquinas Institute of Theology;
Fr. Léobardo Almazán, OP, assistant professor of moral theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology

“No justice, no peace,” the crowd chants. “Justice for Mike Brown,” the sign proclaims. To some people, the demand for justice looks like a threat; to others, it represents an outcry against oppression. As Catholic theologians, we recognize that the desire for God and the desire for justice are integrally intertwined. More than 2,700 years ago, the prophet Micah saw the necessity of justice in the life of the believer: “And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

Catholic thinking on justice emerges from contemplating the Scriptures, of course, but it also develops from a sustained reflection on the nature of human beings, especially as we live out our lives as social creatures. Using language that is meant to appeal beyond denominational identity to include those of different religions or even no religion, Catholic teaching holds that a just society is one in which the common good can flourish, one in which people are able to participate in the life of their communities, and one in which the goods of society are accessible to all. Justice, in Catholic thought, is founded upon twin convictions: (1) that every human life possesses dignity, worth, and value; and (2) that society thrives when the rights of every human person are acknowledged and protected.

On August 18, 2014, President Barack Obama delivered a brief statement regarding the situation in Ferguson. First, he acknowledged the rights to speak freely, to assemble, and to cover the story in the press. Second, he reminded the nation, “Ours is a nation of laws: of citizens who live under them and for the citizens who enforce them.” Third, he made an appeal to “our shared humanity that’s been laid bare by this moment.” Fourth, he invited all to build, and not tear down; to listen and not just to shout; to unite and understand each other, and not simply divide ourselves from one another. The president concluded by saying, “And that’s how we bring about justice, and that’s how we bring about peace.”

From a Catholic perspective, President Obama is calling the entire nation, the people of St. Louis, and those living in the Ferguson area to remember three fundamental truths: we all share a common humanity. As sons and daughters of God, we all have the same worth and we are all entitled to the same basic acknowledgement and respect for our human dignity and our human rights. Many commentators have remarked that the situation in Ferguson did not start on August 9, 2014, with the death of Michael Brown. Instead, the violent reaction grew from something larger, from years of imposed racial profiling, discrimination and resultant poverty, from mistrust, indifference, and scorn.

We are all called to contribute to the common good in a spirit of solidarity. The president’s call “to build, to listen, to understand, and to unite” finds its source on the biblical emphasis to live in a covenantal relationship with God and neighbor. After all, human dignity can only be realized and protected if we live in true and lasting solidarity with our brothers and sisters. This solidarity calls us to “eradicate racism and address the extreme poverty and disease plaguing so much of the world,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In light of recent events in Ferguson, it seems appropriate to assess the extent to which we have become a true community of persons. How much and how truly have we been interested in the extent of the suffering of our African American brothers and sisters living in Ferguson? The wound caused by poverty, racism, and violence will be healed only by greater solidarity. Addressing these issues in a spirit of solidarity is the only sure way to true justice and lasting peace.

We are all called to contribute to the common good, in accord with the principle of subsidiarity. This means that each and every individual, organization or institution has an appropriate role in promoting justice and peace. Government leaders, both national and local, should seek to promote communication, cooperation, and peaceful resolution in close collaboration with other community groups (parishes, congregations, synagogues and mosques, neighborhood associations, civic clubs, and the like). Law enforcement agencies charged with protecting citizens and preventing unlawful activity must enforce the law while, at the same time, respecting the human dignity and rights of all. Finally, people of good will of all races are expected to be informed, to participate, to promote unity, harmony, and concord.

Ultimately, the Catholic Church finds in the dignity of the human person as created in the image and likeness of God the firm foundation for the promotion of peace. All of us, regardless of race, language, color or creed, have the same basic needs, the same fundamental rights, and the same responsibilities to work for the common good. From a Catholic perspective, this is “how we bring about justice, and that’s how we bring about peace.”

Rabbi Susan Talve, Central Reform Congregation

Standing on the steps of the Old Court House in St. Louis the night before the funeral of Michael Brown, many who had been on the front line of the protests stopped marching and chanting and prayed quietly for his family and for the families of so many black men who have been shot by police. In that very place where Dred Scott sued for his freedom and was denied his citizenship and his humanity by our legal system in 1857, we remembered that the next morning, Michael would not be a cause, but the son of a family who would have to bury their child. We stood in silence standing on the very ground that witnessed the Dred Scott case, feeling the legacy of slavery and wondering if the exposure of the disparities of Ferguson had to happen here to redeem the shame of that decision so many generations ago.

Standing with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy I thought of how the story of Abraham, Sara, and Hagar tried to teach us that if we were willing to sacrifice the child of Hagar, (Ha-ger, the “other,” in Hebrew,) then, in the next moment we would find ourselves sacrificing our own children. Michael Brown’s death and his mother’s grief touched a nerve that shot across the racial, geographic, and economic divides of our region. Enough of us got the message that a threat to our children anywhere is a threat to our children everywhere. The gun violence was crossing the divide and it was time for us to do more than talk.

The past three months have challenged us to “walk the walk” as a congregation. As a community that embraces Jews of color and has always been committed to challenging the injustices of racism in St. Louis, we could not stand idly by as Michael Brown’s death forced people of faith to confront the reality that there are two Fergusons, and two Americas.

As the story unfolds, it is clear that we cannot let the narrative be reduced to an oversimplified battle between police and protesters. We have police officers in our congregation and our families, yet we must not be afraid to demand accountability from law enforcement that practices racial profiling and provocation and has done so for many years. This is a historical moment that has the potential to grow a movement that pushes the demands for civil rights further in this country. Our core values of being a justice-seeking congregation guide us and challenge us to be part of the next chapter in this nations civil rights struggle.

So, I stand with the protesters because the death of Michael Brown was a tipping point for me and many others who were ready to say enough to the profiling of young black men and women by the police in St. Louis and beyond.

I stand with the protesters because they have their fingers on the pulse for change and are demanding the entire St. Louis community to step out of our comfort zones day and night.

I stand with the protesters because in our liturgy we say that every life matters and their lives should not be more at risk because they are black and brown women and men.

I stand with the protesters because they are calling for a serious confrontation with institutional racism and I believe that we all need to do this work.

I stand with the protesters because many of them are our children, the children of the baby boom, and we taught them to expect more from their lives than to keep their heads down in fear because of the color of their skin.

I stand with the protesters because they are drawing from the experiences of other communities like Oakland, California, and Cincinnati, Ohio, in order to lead a successful campaign for social and political change.

I stand with the protesters because even in the face of the failure of the legal and justice systems to be fair and unbiased they remain committed to non-violent civil disobedience that provides ways for many who are frustrated and angry to express themselves.

I stand with the protesters because I have seen them do their best to identify and de-escalate those who would use violence and those who would use the protests for their own agendas.

I stand with the protesters because they are each individual whole worlds of potential. They are graduate students and nurses and mothers and they are kind and smart and have seen their brothers and sisters dying around them for too long and shaken their heads in silence. Now it’s time to show up, time to care, time to be an ally.

I stand with the protesters because I believe that they are our future leaders.

I stand with the protesters because they have brought us out of our churches, our synagogues, our mosques, and into the street to pray with our feet. As Jews who believe that our purpose is tikkun olam, we are required to recognize the brokenness before we can repair the damage.

I stand with the protestors because one day we will look back remembering how things were and celebrating how we changed them for the better and I want to be able to say that we were part of the solution and not part of the problem.

These are a few of the changes the protesters are asking for:

  • Civilian Oversight Board for Police for the City and the County.
  • Legislation that limits the practice of profiling by police.
  • Body cameras that are working, turned on and visible name tags on all officers.
  • Departments that reflect the diversity of the neighborhoods they serve.
  • An end to departmental practices that measure a police officers performance by the number of stops and arrests.
  • The establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission resulting in reparations for police brutality victims.
  • Consolidation of county police departments.
  • Cultural diversity training for law enforcement departments.

This is very challenging and complicated work. This movement has also unleashed a strain of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric. It has been messy, and being white and Jewish has not made it easy to show up. But, I will continue to stand with the protesters because this is my home and I have to believe that our vision of spreading our Sukkat Shalom, our shelter of peace where the streets are safe for all of our children, is possible.

Rev. Shaun Ellison Jones, assistant pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church-Christian Complex

The 1986 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel wrote, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” I wholeheartedly believe we live in a hypocritical country. The United States was formed through acts of civil disobedience by a minority that felt oppressed by an unjust majority. From the Boston Tea Party to the First and Second Continental Congress, every child is taught to cherish what is now deemed as a fight for freedom by those America calls its founding fathers. We celebrate these protesters with monuments and museums, songs, and even federal holidays because of their courage to challenge what they believed to be an unjust and oppressive system.

Yet, when brown and black youth in Ferguson exhibit the same courage to challenge oppressive systems like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Paul Revere, they are arrested and told to be quiet. While our founding fathers used guns and swords to challenge the system, Ferguson protesters only use their mouths, feet, signs, and social media. Yet many of us have not honored them as patriots invoking their constitutional rights. Instead they have been labeled agitators and thugs. Why is it considered rowdy and violent to stand up and proclaim that “Black Lives Matter”? Why are black and brown protesters demonized for keeping the issue of police brutality and “death for walking while black” in the media, when all they are truly doing is having the courage to challenge?

As a follower of Christ, I believe it is the solemn duty of every believer to speak out against anyone or any system that oppresses or marginalizes a group of people. The Bible says in Proverbs 31:9: “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Beloved, the Bible is replete with stories about individuals who had the courage to speak truth to power and tell them their “whole damn system was guilty as hell.” God commissioned Moses to liberate the Israelite slaves from Egypt and Pharaoh. Elijah told Ahab and Jezebel that it would not rain until the nation stopped worshipping false gods. Jesus stood up to up to corrupt religious leaders by throwing the moneychangers out of the temple because the house of prayer had become a temple of thieves.

In Daniel 3, there is a set of Jewish freedom fighters by the names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who had the courage to challenge an immoral and ungodly system. These three protesters exhibited character, conviction, and a willingness to accept the consequences of their actions. They stood in the face of corrupt officials and pending death by a fiery furnace and refused to obey what they deemed as an unjust decree. As we, in St. Louis and beyond, face an uphill battle to challenge and change our society we can look to their example and too find the courage to challenge.

Rosalynde Welch, Frontenac Ward
St. Louis Missouri Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

It was a bleak way to usher in what should have been a season of glad anticipation for the Lord’s birth. The city was divided along gnarled ethnic fault lines. Sharp economic inequality between poor and rich poisoned community relations. The legal system was in upheaval, and many had lost confidence in the rule of law to deliver justice. Citizens walked the streets fearful of violent eruptions. Conspiracy theories abounded.

This was not St. Louis in November 2014, though it could have been. It was an ancient city, described in the Book of Mormon, poised on a knife’s edge between the best of times and the worst of times. Into this tense scene would arrive an unlikely messenger, a member of a despised racial minority, who, with great courage, would call the troubled city to repentance and share the astonishing news that the Son of God would soon come into the world. In that dark moment, hope of deliverance from the intractable generational conflicts that plagued the city must have seemed like a madman’s fantasy.

Latter-day Saints seeking to make sense of the troubled situation that Ferguson has revealed, and seeking to discern own their role in our path forward, will find much to consider in the Book of Mormon. Like the Old Testament, to which it is closely related, the Book of Mormon is preoccupied with social justice: its prophets urge us to attend to the welfare of the poor and the suffering of the oppressed. Furthermore, it traces the inevitable decay of a racist culture with violent proclivities. It’s a sobering picture for its present-day readers.

And like the New Testament, to which it is similarly related, the Book of Mormon ultimately teaches that the Christian gospel redresses all racial, sexual, and political inequities with the power of Christ’s love. “[B]lack and white, bond and free, male and female … all are alike unto God.” As its expectation-defying narrative progresses, the divisions between black and white, righteous and wicked, are shown to be spiritually bankrupt. God’s Spirit is at work in people of every color, circumstance and persuasion. It’s an illuminating picture for its present-day readers.

The Book of Mormon addresses itself directly to the present day. It specifically invites its modern readers to “liken the scriptures” unto ourselves. That means us, St. Louisans in the aftermath of Ferguson. The book goes so far as to provide us with a historical example of the righteous society toward which we are instructed to work and pray. For a brief period, the conflict and upheaval that characterized this ancient civilization for centuries lifted, as night gives way to dawn. Modeled on Christian teachings, a peaceful and unified community emerged. They renounced their previous racist ideologies, economic inequality, and warlike violence. They embraced perfect equality, harmony, and understanding. “They were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.”

But this utopia was short-lived. Peace brought prosperity; prosperity brought pride, privilege, and complacence. Eventually the old divisions re-emerged. It’s heartbreaking to read. And it’s a warning that even the best-conceived reforms, the most inspiring idealisms, must be strengthened with ongoing commitment, work, and remembrance. The problems of St. Louis’s racist past are never only in the past: they are always just ahead in our future, if we lose touch with our deepest values and visions.

These lessons and many more for our moment are alive for Latter-day Saints in the pages of the Book of Mormon. Some of these lessons are relevant now; some will be relevant in the coming months and years. One episode seems particularly germane to our mood in St. Louis today. At perhaps the darkest moment in Book of Mormon history, the nation has been wrecked by a series of cataclysmic natural disasters that seem to act out all the human hatred, violence, and injustice that simmered at the surface of society for centuries. The morning after the destruction, shocked survivors wait in darkness, weeping with anguish and confusion and grief. Then a profound silence descends. After many hours, a voice materializes. It is a quietly compelling voice, but the words are incomprehensible. Again the voice comes, and again the crowd understands nothing. The voice comes a third time, and this time the people open their ears, their eyes, and their hearts. Finally they understand. Meaning dawns, and with it the darkness dissipates.

For stunned St. Louisans on the figurative “morning after” our own upheaval, we would do well to remember that after the anguish and the confusion and grief, a period of prayerful silence is in order. Meaning and light will dawn, but it will take time and desire. Not all voices are clear the first time. Listen. Listen again, and then again. And keep your heart turned toward heaven.

The Very Rev. Mike Kinman
Dean, Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal)

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

In these days and nights, young women and men are appearing on the streets of Ferguson. And New York. And Oakland. And many other places. And they are proclaiming:

“Who are we? Mike Brown!”
“I’ve got my hands on my head. Please don’t shoot me dead.”
“Show me what democracy looks like. THIS is what democracy looks like.”

Like John the Baptist before them, they are contemptuous of the authorities—the civil authorities and the church authorities that have turned their backs on them.

Like John the Baptist before them, they are calling the people to repentance.

But unlike John the Baptist, many of the people of St. Louis and all America are not going out to them. Instead many if not most are calling them names like “thugs” and “criminals.” They are telling them to go home or to get jobs and go to school, not knowing that’s where many of them are spending their days.

In Matthew’s Gospel, John stands at the Jordan River and bids the people to come and repent? Why? Because “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Christ is coming, and we need to prepare to receive him. It is that Advent work of preparation, but really, it is the work we are about all year round.

John cries out to the gathering crowd: “Repent!” Now, we hear John’s voice and maybe our first thought is that he is calling us to fall on our faces and wail. We picture the wild-eyed man on the street corner crying, “Repent, the end is near!” The man who, like these young people in Ferguson, is so easy for us to turn into a caricature and dismiss.

John isn’t saying, “Repent, the end is near!” The word we read as “repent” is metanoia, which means a transformation. John is saying, “Change your life, the beginning is near!” And it’s not to individuals, John is saying you—plural—change your life, your common life together, the beginning is near. Turn—all of you—turn to a new direction, a new way of living. Get ready to receive new life.

In Matthew’s story, the people do just this. They don’t fall to their knees and wail or individually mumble a few pious words. The word Matthew uses for confess is ἐξομολογέω (ex-om-ol-og-eh’-o), which means “together, acknowledging openly and joyfully.” This is a loud, communal, joyful confession.

In order to be ready to receive Jesus, the people have to turn from being individuals with all the things that separate them to being one body. No them and us. Only we. And because this is an act of liberation. Because when we do this we become so much greater and richer than we are by ourselves, the people actually confessed their sins out loud and with joy.

John the Baptist is alive in the young women and men who are protesting on the streets of Ferguson every night. The call is the same. The question is—will we go out and see them. Will we heed the call to change our life, the life we all live together?

Will we as the church lead our people out to this new Jordan River? Will we lead our people into bearing fruit worthy of a common life changed? Or will we be the Pharisees and Sadducees? Will we, like them, claim the righteousness of our history as our security blanket? Will we deny that even now God is raising up from these streets children of Abraham, a new generation of Johns not to be baptized by us but to baptize us and to point us anew to Christ?

Isaiah and Matthew both spoke of an in-breaking—a moment in history where the people of God (and that’s all of us) are being invited to listen to a cry in the wilderness that a savior is coming. That the sufferings of the past can be over. That redemption from our sin is within our reach.

Ferguson can be that moment for us as a nation. The moment where we engage in that crucial act of discipleship that is reconciliation. Of self-examination, confession, repentance, and amendment of life. This can be the moment where we acknowledge openly and even joyfully that our nation’s original sin of racism has bound us but that we will be bound no more. That we are willing to put the axe to the trees that sustain systems of white privilege and racial profiling, of oppressive policing and huge gaps of educational opportunity. That we are willing to be a tree that bears fruit worthy of a changed life.

That like the heavenly Jerusalem, we are willing to make the streets of Ferguson and all our cities’ streets flow with living water and with trees with leaves for the healing of the nations.

But it will only be this moment if we go out to these new Jordan Rivers and hear the voices that are out there. It will only be this moment, we will only be pointed to Christ if we listen deeply to the voices of young women and men of color, not just in Ferguson but in every city—and particularly if those among us who are white guard those voices and amplify them and interpret them for one another.

We are in a prolonged season of Advent, and really we have been there for a long time. These voices are not new. They have been crying out and crying out for awhile. But we are beginning to hear them now.

Will we go out and see them. Will we heed the call to change our life, the life we all live together?

Leah Gunning Francis, Ph.D., associate dean for contextual education and assistant professor of Christian education at Eden Theological Seminary

We have gathered here today to express our outrage over the shooting death of Michael Brown that has been deemed a justifiable homicide.

In August, Governor Nixon was repeatedly asked to appoint a special prosecutor to present evidence to the grand jury. Elected officials, civil rights organizations, local clergy, and even the Brown family were among those making this request. State Senator Jamilah Nasheed presented an online petition with more than 100,000 signatures asking Prosecutor McCullough to recuse himself, but all requests were denied.

These requests were made because of a potential conflict of interest between the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office and the Ferguson Police Department. Many were rightly concerned about the integrity of the process, and demanded an unaffiliated party to oversee it.

Governor Nixon refused to appoint a special prosecutor. Attorney General Chris Kostner and U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill supported this decision. U.S. Representative William Lacy Clay initially called for a special prosecutor but ultimately stood by Governor Nixon’s decision.

Now that the grand jury decided there is no probable cause for indictment and the evidence has been released, we are left with far more questions than answers. There were enough inconsistencies and missteps to warrant this case going to trial, as pointed out by Washington University Law Professor Mae Quinn.

As a result, we stand here today to ask Governor Nixon to now appoint a special prosecutor for a new grand jury. He has the legal right to do so, and we call on Senator McCaskill and Congressman Clay to support this action.

It should come as no surprise that mothers have galvanized to make this call. Throughout our country’s history, mothers have organized and worked together for the benefit of their children.

How different might our drinking laws be, and how many more lives lost if it were not for the tireless work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)? What about the relentless efforts of Moms Demand Action and Mothers Against Gun Violence to stand up against the NRA and challenge our lawmakers to enact sensible gun laws that keep children safe?

Now it is time for this country to hear from Mothers of Black Boys and Girls, and our allies, as we stand together and say, “Stop Killing Our Children!” Too many of our children have died at the hands of those who were sworn to protect and serve them. Enough is enough!

We call for an end to racial profiling and police brutality.

We call for an end to policing policies that justify the use of lethal force upon unarmed people.

We want policing policies and practices that start with seeing our children as human beings first.

To be clear, Officer Wilson did not kill a gentle giant or Hulk Hogan. He killed a human being. An unarmed human being. Perhaps if our children can be seen as human beings first, they may have a better chance of being afforded the rights and privileges of one.

As calls for justice ring out around the world, we join those voices as we say “Never Again!”

This should never, ever, ever happen again to another one of our children.

And we will keep praying with our feet until there is no more blood in our streets!

This contribution was the opening speech given at the Mother’s March for Justice on November 29, 2014.

Mufti Asif Umar, imam at the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis

“O mankind! Verily, We have created you from a single male and female and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may get to know one another. Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. Verily, God is All-Knowing, the Aware.” (Quran, 49:13)

There is a very famous saying that we all have heard at some point in our lives. The saying goes: “United we stand, divided we fall.” This small phrase conveys a grand message: the message of unity, the message of oneness, the message of working together. Unity is very important in any society, any group, and any organization in order to achieve the goals they have. This message is ever so important in our current time, especially with what has happened in Ferguson and with the grand jury decision.

Islam is a religion which commands and stresses unity, not only among Muslims but when working among non-Muslims as well. It is necessary to have a mutual respect for each other, to fulfill each other’s rights, to work together in a peaceful way. A hadith or saying of the Prophet Muhammad, which is a common saying in other faiths as well, is, “You must love for your brother what you love for yourself.”

In Islam, unity is so important that it’s included in many different things, even when a Muslim is worshipping God. For example, praying five times a day in a congregation is considered unity. Fasting together in the month of Ramadan, there’s unity in time. Getting together for the Hajj pilgrimage, there’s unity in time and place where the various steps are performed. These are all rights of God. So one is taught that there is unity even in worship.

But there is another aspect of religion, besides the rights of God, and that is fulfilling the rights of our fellow human beings.

God says in the Quran: “Hold fast onto the rope of God, all of you together, and do not become disunited” (Quran, 3:103). So we must regard all human beings as one body, and unity as the health of that body. We must identify those spiritual diseases that make the body sick so we know how to cure them; otherwise these diseases will lead to the body’s demise.

In chapter 49 of the Quran, entitled “The Rooms,” God mentions some of these spiritual diseases, such as mockery, defamation, slander, backbiting, and suspicion. All are causes of disunity among each other. In fact, they are so harmful that God compares backbiting to “consuming the flesh of one’s own dead brother,” an unthinkable act. Immediately following these verses, God also mentions the issues of racism and tribalism, which is the verse I posted in the beginning of the article. God created different races and tribes so that different people would recognize each other and learn from each other—not for people of different races to fight each other.

Islam is against all forms of racism and bigotry. Racism is the belief that one race is superior to another, or one color of skin is superior to another, or the people of one country are superior to another. Such beliefs were the characteristics of the idol worshippers in Makkah before the days of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad came and eradicated these beliefs. In Islam, Muslims believe all races are equal to God and the only characteristic that makes someone superior to another is righteousness.

In fact, the Prophet Muhammad said in his final sermon, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black has any superiority over a white—except by piety and good action.”

We must all stand together peacefully in support of one another wanting fairness, justice and equality for all, so that society can be the way God wants us to be. United.

Rev. Scott Stearman, Ph.D., senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church

Recently, I attended another meeting of clergy trying to grapple with how to be a positive force for good in our current city crisis. In a few trips to, and a few meetings about, “Ferguson” I’ve observed some things worthy of your consideration.

First, there is a reason Jesus appointed women as the first “evangelists.” In this present situation the effective voices right now are often women. Mothers, and female clergy, are on the front lines here. In the Metropolitan Congregations United clergy group, my friends Rev. Mary Gene Boteler of Second Presbyterian Church, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reformed Congregation, and Rev. Traci Blackmon of Christ the King United Church of Christ are key leaders providing leadership. I’m grateful to live at a moment when we no longer suppress these essential voices in and outside the church.

Second, we truly all do see through a glass darkly. As I have said, if I’ve learned anything over these last few years of dialogue about race it is that we see as much with our past experiences as with our present perceptions. We wear heavy glasses shaped by our past. Our past influences everything we see, or everything we ignore. It is vital that we seek to understand how another person’s lenses were formed, and that we be patient with those whose perspective is different than ours. This is part of what the great writer William Faulkner meant by his famous: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And when Jesus said to “love your enemy” he did so recognizing that most often our “enemy” is just another person with different glasses.

Third, as with so many things in life, the problem is not as much knowledge of the good, as willingness to do the good. I’m glad that the governor is appointing a commission to study the issues that have come to light in Ferguson. However, I do worry that sometimes our issue is primarily about political will, not needed knowledge. We know that free pre-K education pays huge economic and social dividends. We know that incarceration rates in the U.S. are off the charts because of a system that needs serious reform. We know that the secondary education system in many communities needs major funding and reform. One in three African American males born in 2001 will go to jail in their lifetime. That’s not simply poor decision-making. Between the 63105 (Clayton) and 63106 (North St. Louis) zip codes, there is an unfathomable 18-year difference in life span. Multiple causes are at root, but clearly it’s not simply about a few bad actors.

The last thing I’ll mention (although, there’s always much more to say) is that while no rational person wants violent protests, we people who make up the majority must recognize that non-violent protests are part of the way progress has been made in this country. Go back just a century and you’ll find progress made by laborers who were successful in instituting basic workplace protections, or women who successfully earned the right to vote, or the freedom riders and marchers who helped bring about the Civil Rights Act. Protests are annoying to those of us who, frankly, have little to gain. But the right to free expression is part of what makes our country great. It is how we’ve progressed so far in the liberties we now take for granted.

So in this regard pray for two groups who have been on the front lines since the announcement was made about the grand jury decision. The police, who are tasked with protecting our city from violence, and those clergy who will be working to “de-escalate” protests that get out of hand. The fact is we need the good work of good police and we need the work of protestors who will spur our state and city to do what needs to be done. And ask the question, not what would Jesus do, but what in this moment is Jesus doing, and what is my role in that?

Rev. Jacquelyn L. Foster, D.Min., pastor of Compton Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Compton Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) opened as a designated “24-Hour Safe Space” immediately following the grand jury announcement that there would be no indictment of Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old, black teenager Michael Brown.

Throughout the night people flowed into the building. Some were protesters who came to get warm, have something hot to drink, use the restroom, pick up a couple of those little hand-warmers, and go back out. Others were people who were not protesting, but came to be of support to each other, and to those who were protesting. Some sat together in the choir room where we had set up a TV to watch events unfold on the news. Others sat in the sanctuary praying, surrounded by candlelight and music. Some gathered in conversation. At one point a man with both Buddhist and Christian connections led a small group in “Turtle Island Prayer” with the deep tones of the Didgeridoo allowing people to express the emotions of pain and hope with their voices. And there were those who spent much of the evening out on the church lawn or on the sidewalk in front of the church blessing protesters on their way and encouraging them in peaceful protest.

At one point as I walked through the candlelit sanctuary, I saw a young woman sitting in the last pew in the back. She was praying and crying. I gently offered her care and then left her alone. One of our volunteers told me that this young woman, who was participating in the protest, had said, “Tonight I lost my church.” She felt that she could no longer connect spiritually with a community that could not hear the cry of her voice in protest. She felt abandoned by the church.

A little later a pastor from another congregation came in to pray and simply be in this space, in part because the congregation she serves was not responding, and she simply could not act as if what was happening in our city and nation is separate from the church. She, among others, needed to be in a church with others who were praying, talking, and caring through this moment in history.

I suspect that the young protester represents others who feel that they have “lost their church” in this time, and that the pastor represents others whose congregations are not ready to face, discuss, and take action on the issues of racial justice at hand. Their story is not uncommon. In fact, I could see the overwhelmed thankfulness in the eyes of those who found a few churches open in these days. Many thanked us profusely and with tears, for being open to them. Some asked “Why?” “How did you decide to do this?” Their questions, I believe, are not about the decision process; rather they are asking what we believe. How do we understand God? What does it mean to be Church?

These are the questions of the ages that we will never completely answer. Yet through the events of this great unfolding moment, I have seen a clarity in our congregation that is breathtaking.

The night after Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, I saw several of our church members stand vigil on a street corner here in our neighborhood to witness that this was about all of our communities and that God was with us. Others made it a point to go to Ferguson, simply to support the people there. Certainly our people did not shy away from reaching out to a family in our congregation who live right in the hot spot of Ferguson.

It was in September that our Stewardship and Outreach Ministry Group adapted “The Race Card Project” for use on three consecutive Sundays to facilitate conversation in the congregation on race. NPR’s Michele Norris started “The Race Card Project” in 2010 to encourage a wider conversation about race among her readers and listeners. On each Sunday, our congregation was asked to respond briefly in writing to a word. The first was “Race”, the second “Reconciliation,” and at last, the question of what this congregation can do to work on these hard issues and to be a reconciling community as we move forward.

On Wednesday, October 9, a group of adult leaders ranging in age from 30s to 70s was gathered at the church drinking coffee and tea as we responded to the cards on “Race” and “Reconciliation.” As we discussed the hard things and shared our pain and hope, little did we know that yet another young black man was shot and killed by a police officer. This time it was about four blocks from us and it was Vonderitt Myers, Jr. We had gone in the church to talk about race at 7:00 p.m., and by the time we came out another young man was dead and our neighborhood was spinning.

By the next night, we were hosting an ecumenical prayer service for Vonderitt Myers, Jr., and for the community in our sanctuary.

Whether marching or serving in Ferguson, or downtown, or South City, members and friends of this congregation have approached the issues with compassion for everyone involved. On Sundays we have prayed for the young men who were killed and their families, for police officers and their families, and for those who protest and for those who are fearful of the protest.

As tensions heightened, I witnessed a strong sense of calling among our elders as they, without hesitation, said “Yes” to the call of Metropolitan Congregations United to serve as a safe space. Then they and the congregation as a whole backed it with the commitment of their presence to hold this space as a place of comfort, prayer, care, and encouragement. We have been clear that “to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves,” required action in this time. The Church could not be silent. We had a role to play in helping to bring peace and the call for justice in our community. Even as individual elders (and their pastor!) expressed some concern, there was an abiding sense that our decisions must grounded in hope rather than fear. We are able to live and act in hope because we experience God in Jesus the Christ who “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14). In God, we are already one people. It is our task to live into that oneness.

This congregation holds a deep commitment to the “radical hospitality of Jesus” which we see embodied in his repeated welcome, engagement, and offering of healing across the barriers that divided God’s people. This is what that hospitality has looked like in these days:

First, to serve as a “safe space” where people in the community were welcome, whether protesters or non-protesters, to pray and talk and simply feel safe in the presence of others. We would be open for at least the first consecutive 24 hours after the announcement and then as needed.

Second, to become a space where people who wanted to protest could be taught how to protest peacefully. Some would learn how to be legal observers. Some would learn how to care for those who needed help on the street. Protesters would gather before going out, so that they were connected with a purposeful group. For instance the first evening, we welcomed a large group of students from St. Louis University and Washington University in St. Louis, who came for training before hitting the streets.

Third, to become a site for meals to be prepared to care for those on the streets. In our space, volunteers have made everything from burritos to spaghetti to fried chicken, and then finally a huge Thanksgiving meal to be served in Ferguson, remembering the young black men who were not at the table.

Fourth, to serve as a site where protesters could receive care if they were suffering from pepper spray, tear gas, or other injuries. One great gift was the commitment by the staff of “Places for People” to have two mental health professionals with us from 8 p.m. to midnight each evening in case they were needed.

Hopefully, our work now is to help the church and the community we serve to learn to listen from the heart and to speak from the heart. Having trained with the Compassionate Listening Project, based in Seattle, I facilitate a Compassionate Listening Practice Group. We have used and taught this process within the congregation and have offered it in the wider community. We believe that we must learn to listen without judgment, to listen from the heart so that we may come to know the story of the other. Quaker Peacemaker and Mystic, Gene Knudsen Hoffman, who pioneered Compassionate Listening as a tool for deep understanding and reconciliation, often said: “The enemy is one whose story we have not yet heard.”

Surely the Church must be the community to help all God’s people hear each other’s stories and to become each other’s friends rather than enemies so that we may bring healing to our world. Because God so loved the world—all the world and all the people. And because we are the Church of Jesus the Christ, the one who embodied God’s compassion, mercy, justice, and love. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re open in these days.

Rev. Nora Jones, pastor at Samaritan United Methodist Church

Upon hearing the grand jury’s decision over the death of Mike Brown, I found myself angry, yet not surprised at the decision. I was overwhelmed with sadness and disappointment. I was sad over how the decision would affect the city, our children, and the world. I was sad how once again skin pigmentation is still a major problem in the world and that people still judge others by it. I was angry over how time after time peaceful protests were met with such aggressive policing. My spirit was uncomfortable with how St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough had demonized Mike Brown. Yes, as I watched the announcement, I was not surprised at the decision, or at my anger or grief.

As I thought back on the events of Mike Brown’s death, several things were revealed. First, the cities of Ferguson and St Louis and the world were changed by the use of social media; secondly, our understanding of how and when to protest evolved; and finally, on a personal level I too had been changed. My faith was changed, challenged, and stretched to new understanding of faithfulness.

I realized that the movement was changing quickly, which caused people to be more apprehensive about joining the initial protests, particularly during the night hours. Although I identified with the protesters, I was having difficulty embracing the nighttime protests because it did not fit my paradigm of a protest. In addition, my family begged me not to go out there, so I stayed at home. My heart was with the protesters, and trying to honor my family wishes. Yet God was compelling me to express my faith in a more visible manner that was less comfortable and safe. I was uncomfortable.

I attempted to walk a difficult path between God nudging me from my comfort zone and honoring my promise to my family. So I followed God into Ferguson during the day, where I could see those around me and those who stood with me. I was not afraid of the other African Americans around in the apartment, but the nighttime protests and the militarization of the police terrorized me. I was terrified of the teargas, of being beaten with batons, and of the pepper spray. I understood the protesters’ rage and anger but I did not condone their violence.

I quickly identified the systematic causes that brought us to this moment and recognized the implicated racism that lead us to this day. During the night, Ferguson became a different city and it was dangerous, and it was too far from honoring my promise to my family. Still God kept nudging my spirit to be a part of God’s visible presence in the middle of the chaos.

My involvement in Ferguson started with praying at the site where Michael Brown was killed. I listened, prayed, and wept with others. I listened to young African Americans stories of loss and faith. I listened to stories from individuals who were afraid of living in Ferguson, due to aggressive policing policies. I listened to a woman who saw the whole incident between Mike Brown and Darren Wilson, yet she was too afraid to testify because she feared retaliation of the police. I went to Ferguson in the mornings and late afternoon to listen, to pray and to weep for loss and the world.

Due to the cancellation of classes in the Ferguson School District, I found myself joining other clergywomen in providing a safe shelter for displaced children at the Methodist church. I listened to others and together we prayed for them and the world. It was hard to absorb the children’s fears and I attempted to alleviate the anxiousness on their faces. The children and teenagers became burned in the darkness of my closed eyelids. Often when I try to close my eyes to sleep now, I see the faces of those children instead. Each day we gathered, we heard questions of faith, asking why of God. The children who we shared hours with in Ferguson were grieving not only the loss of a community safety, but also for their futures. As the week ended, I found myself longing to do more but what more looked like was unclear to me.

But with certainty I knew my spirit was changing and God was enlarging me, urging me to pursue sustainable change for Ferguson. Acting on God’s widening of my faith I found myself attending clergy meetings and volunteering for more and more activities. Every opportunity I spoke to others about the importance of understanding the issues of racism and white privilege in our world.

I understood it was difficult for some individuals to believe Ferguson’s problems had anything to do with who they were or where they lived. I challenged people inside and outside the church with Scriptural passages of how we are called to love as God so loved and to be our brother and sisters’ keepers. The conversations not only challenged others but also changed me and my resolve to work on behalf of justice. I prayed and lamented over our human depravity more frequently, and I was more committed to be a part of the solution for pursuing equality.

Each new opportunity broadened my horizons to be more prophetic. Slowly God was dissolving my fears and my need to be comfortable. As God removed my paralysis of fear, I found myself enlisting my colleagues and people from my parish to cook meals for the children and volunteer too. I told people there are more ways one can serve than just to protest on the street. One could make a difference in life of a child in your own neighborhood. One could participate by praying for the city, the police, the protesters and peacekeepers. One could start by inviting others to have a conversation about racism and white privilege.

I preached and I cajoled individuals about how it is within our power to make a difference in others. As the days passed, I knew God was calling us out of the safety of our churches to work alongside of the young adults in the streets. Moment by moment, God pushed others, as well as myself to try new ways of being in the world. Again, I must remind you, that this new level of faith that God was pouring into my spirit felt uncomfortable, awkward and strange—similar to learning a new language.

However, what I love about God is that God longs to transform all of us, in how we think, act, and believe even in our uncomfortable-ness. God longs to change our understandings of what is comfortable and safe. God wants to challenge us to be more faithful and to trust God’s spirit to lead us. God did this for me by using the most common things in my life—strangers, friends, and the events in Ferguson. God desires every individual’s faith to be stretched farther than he or she believes is possible. I know this broadening of our faith is not just for clergy but also for anyone who is willing to follow where God leads.

The next step of enlarging the elasticity of my faith came through an urgent text message received from a colleague. The text stated they needed more clergy who could serve as peacekeepers in Ferguson as soon as possible. What if I die? Surely there was another who was more prepared than I. There must be someone, anyone, who knew how to speak the right words to the police and young adults to keep the peace. Someone who possessed the tools to dismantle the structures of racism.

As I mentally wrestled with doing the right thing, the words of one of my favorite theologians, the German pastor Martin Niemöller, rang in my heart. The words grew louder, obliterating my need to be safe. I found myself changing clothes and putting on my clergy collar. I called my mother and told her that I love her. I went out into the night. I went out into the night with my fears of being tear-gassed, or pepper-sprayed. I went out with my uncomfortable-ness and awkward feelings. I went out in power, confidently assured that God was with me. I went out ill-equipped but equipped by God to pursue justice and love for all of God’s people. I went out to where God was leading me and I went out saying to myself Niemöller’s quote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Nights, days, and months have passed since my first visit to the nighttime protests, and today I find my comfort still being challenged. But I go with God believing I will be alright and I urge all God’s people to do the same. After the grand jury announcement, we opened Samaritan United Methodist Church’s doors for people who needed to find a safe shelter, to worship, to pray and lament and to discuss our racial relations.

Today, I find myself weary of humanity’s inability to see injustice but I still persevere in hope. Praying that somewhere and somehow the world’s Martin Niemöllers will show up with their urgent message for us to act on behalf of injustices. I am hopeful that one day we will have a sustainable and just future that encompasses all ethnicities, and genders, as well as housing, employment and affordable healthcare for everyone.

So, when you are facing a crisis that is causing you to stretch your faith, lean in toward greater trust in God. Remember to pray first and then to act. And just know that not everyone is called to be a protester on the street but there are millions of ways you can fight for justice. Finally, I pray you stay open to God’s broadening of your spirit and faith and recognize that each of us can make a difference. Open yourself up to new possibilities.

Remember that it is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

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The Protestant Mainline Goes to Washington Wed, 19 Nov 2014 17:14:08 +0000

(Getty/LIFE/Paul Schutzer) President Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles arrive at National airport in Washington, DC.

On a Sunday morning this past October, some 1,500 preachers and ministers across the country joined in a nationwide protest they called Pulpit Freedom Sunday. They spoke defiantly from their pulpits about political campaigns and pending legislation. They even endorsed politicians, knowingly violating laws meant to prevent such mixing of church and state. Organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom, this group of evangelicals targeted the Johnson Amendment, which forbids tax-exempt organizations from endorsing political candidates and getting involved in campaigns. By violating these rules in an act of civil disobedience, they hoped to trigger a court case to get the amendment overturned. The issue, as they see it, is too much involvement by the government in religious life. The government should not tell Christians how to run their businesses, how to teach their children, or—as the Pulpit Freedom Sunday protesters asserted—how to write their sermons.

These sermons of protest were part of a broader political mobilization among religious institutions in the United States in recent years. The number of “Nones”—those professing no religious affiliation—is on the rise, and a small but vocal group of atheists are challenging Christian displays in public spaces. And the Christian Right appears to be losing the battle on gay rights. In response, many of the leading conservative religious organizations are mobilizing politically while also shifting their strategy. Their new aim is to mark off a part of life that can remain Christian, to protect Christians as a minority that can stand apart from the demands of a national culture they see as being dominated by secularism. The Hobby Lobby case was only the most prominent example of this trend.

On the other hand, a broad swath of American Christians sees things entirely differently. Although they receive far less attention, members of the religious left do not feel besieged by their country. Instead, they are pushing law and politics in the very directions the religious right is resisting. The United Church of Christ filed suit in April 2014 to overturn the prohibition on gay marriage in North Carolina. In the same state, many ministers are participating in the “Moral Monday” campaigns, a movement that is saturated in religious language. And Jim Wallis and Cornel West were arrested last month for protesting police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. Although the left differs with the right on cultural policy, both groups see political mobilization as being at the heart of religious thought and practice.

How did politics become so central for religious life? The most familiar story goes something like this: in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, feminism, and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, and neoliberal Jews agreed to overlook their differences and work together to combat these trends. In the late 1970s, groups like Moral Majority mobilized religious conservatives, who threw their collective weight behind Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement. Emboldened by the rise of the New Right, religious conservatives launched the Culture Wars, which thrust their cultural agenda into the political sphere, leading to the polarization that we live with today.

The political mobilization by evangelicals in the seventies is important. But the moment when politics became inseparable from Protestant life came earlier, in the 1940s, and it came not from the religious right but the religious left.


WRITING IN 1950 FOR a small religious journal, two Protestant activists noticed a strange development in the decade that had just passed: Twenty mainline denominations and ecumenical organizations had opened up permanent lobbying offices in Washington, D.C., without much fanfare or notice. These lobbying offices pushed for progressive policies, in line with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal agendas. One of the authors of the article was Thomas B. Keehn, himself a registered lobbyist for the Congregational-Christian denomination, which today is part of the United Church of Christ. Working from a small office near the Capitol, Keehn was at that very moment lobbying for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, which would ensure access to jobs without racial discrimination, and for the removal of racial quotas from immigration law. The Cold War was beginning and Keehn protested against universal military training. He also pushed for the expansion of Social Security and the creation of a European-style universal healthcare system. Mainline Protestants had pushed for progressive policies in the past but never in such a sophisticated and direct way.

The affinity between Protestantism and progressive politics was well-known in the mid-twentieth century. And the opinions of mainline leaders carried weight. Like today, American Protestantism was largely a two-party system in the 1940s, and it was clear then that the liberal Protestants affiliated with the mainline denominations were winning against their evangelical opponents. Their churches were not growing as fast as evangelical ones but they were being filled with the right kinds of people: America’s middle and upper classes. Virtually every president, senator, big business leader, Supreme Court justice, and university head of that era was a member of one of the mainline denominations. Strangely, the religious representatives of America’s elite, especially those who were responsible for lobbying, were promoting a progressive political agenda.

It was World War II that made this confluence of power and politics possible. Largely forgotten leaders like the Rev. Henry P. Van Dusen believed that “secular” forces caused the war and that only religion could ensure a prosperous and safe postwar world. Van Dusen enlisted John Foster Dulles to coordinate a massive political and publicity campaign to keep America from making the same mistakes it made after World War I, when the country rejected the League of Nations. In the early 1940s, Dulles was working as a lawyer but he also actively advised Republican leaders and the State Department on foreign affairs. Later, he would become secretary of state, after a Republican (Eisenhower) was elected to the presidency in 1952, after 20 years of Democrats in the Oval Office. But even before he assumed a cabinet position, Van Dusen believed that Dulles’ political and religious connections made him the perfect advocate for what became the United Nations.

Dulles was raised in a pious Protestant household. He first got involved with Protestant politics in the 1920s, during the modernist-fundamentalist debates, when he was asked to defend Van Dusen and others in heresy trials for denying parts of the Presbyterian creed, like the virgin birth of Christ. Dulles acted as a lawyer in some of these cases on behalf of the modernist faction. By the 1930s, as the world was heading toward war, he attended international conventions of Protestant and Orthodox churches. The unity of these churches impressed him at a moment when the League of Nations was falling apart. Before the start of World War II, Dulles was already convinced that Protestants would lead the way in creating a new world order.

Once World War II began, Dulles and Van Dusen got to work. In early 1942, they organized a conference in Delaware, Ohio, at which they laid out a 13-point program for world peace. The nearly 400 delegates in Delaware included 15 bishops, seven seminary heads, eight college and university presidents, along with important intellectuals and ecumenical leaders. Fearing that this program would suffer the fate of Woodrow Wilson’s 14-point program, Dulles whittled their plan down to “Six Pillars” the following year. “The peace must provide the political framework for a continuing collaboration of the United Nations,” the first pillar declared. Moral persuasion was not enough to avoid a Third World War: Protestant values needed to be expressed politically.

The Protestant values elaborated by the Six Pillars did not seem especially “Protestant.” They included the creation of international economic treaties, continuously renegotiated political treaties, autonomy for colonial peoples and diminution of racism, control of militaries, and religious liberty. Some of these values, like religious liberty, were longstanding Protestant concerns. Others, like anti-colonialism, had emerged only recently. But the major development was the widespread understanding that all of these values needed to be expressed politically, or else the world would go through war after war without end.

To promote the Six Pillars, Dulles orchestrated the World Order movement. He enlisted members of Congress, along with America’s cultural and economic elite, to go from city to city and implore Americans to support the United Nations on religious grounds. At the same time, denominations used radio programs, sermons, the press, and church curricula to mobilize churchgoers. In total, tens of millions of Protestants participated in one way or another in what became the biggest political mobilization by mainline Protestants since Prohibition. While the grassroots were becoming enthusiastic about the U.N., Dulles kept his eyes on the political sphere. He met with American and world leaders, and attended the 1945 U.N. conference in San Francisco to make sure this organization was being created in line with Protestant principles.

Through the World Order movement Protestant lobbying was born. At a time of widespread enthusiasm for the United Nations, there was little objection to using modern bureaucratic techniques to express religious principles in national and international politics. Mainline leaders wanted to keep watch over legislation affecting the postwar peace process because they believed that Washington politicians might repeat the mistakes of World War I, when the Senate rejected the League of Nations. Offices began popping up on and around Capitol Hill. The Congregationalists opened theirs in 1944, and the Federal Council of Churches office opened during following year. The first religious lobbying offices were often no more than a room in a larger building, with a single person in charge of most of the work. The Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Northern Baptists crowded together in a building on 11th Street. A secretary or two would help organize some of the day-to-day work for lobbyists like Keehn, the Congregationalist, and an advisory council made up of local leaders met regularly to discuss the latest legislation. When needed, lobbyists could also tap into the broader national network of influential political players, like Dulles. Although they started small, these lobbying offices could be quite effective in Congress.

The organizing was clumsy at first, but over time the Protestant mainline became a sophisticated political animal. Budgets and staffs grew, drawing praise from some and condemnation from others. As early as 1946, one Congregationalist minister protested at a national gathering by carrying a placard that read:

When the overwhelming majority of our Congregational Christians who hold to the free American way of life, find out how their tithes and offers for ‘missions’ are being misused by [the denomination] to maintain a left wing lobby in Washington and to promote state socialism, how are they going to react? Eighty thousand dollars for political action in 1945!

The consequences of Protestant political mobilization during the 1940s transformed both American religion and American politics. Keehn focused on creating an international organization at first but soon switched his attention to other concerns, like ending segregation and fighting poverty. Mainline Protestants were not the only ones who pursued these goals but they were unique because they represented disproportionately a white, wealthy, and Republican constituency. In the short term, they helped create a modicum of bipartisanship on some of the important social questions of the mid-century.

In the long term, however, the “left wing” lobbies split their community. The policies they pursued had alienated some conservative members of the Protestant mainline. At a 1942 meeting in Oxford, Dulles had promoted “something like a ‘new deal’ for the world” to his British colleagues. But by the 1950s, he was telling acquaintances that the National Council of Churches was full of people with “Left Wing and Socialist tendencies.” As mainline leaders moved to the left, they left people like Dulles behind, who found new allies among evangelicals, and later, likeminded Catholic and Jewish conservatives.


WHAT WAS THE PROPER relationship between church and state? Could church leaders make policy on their own or did they need the approval of the laity? The architects of these lobbying groups could only plead caution and non-partisanship.

When the Johnson Amendment passed in 1954—the amendment that was the target of the recent Pulpit Freedom Sunday—it was in the context of the political mobilization of mainline Protestants, not evangelicals. That same year, “Under God” had been inserted into the pledge of allegiance and two years later “In God We Trust” would become this country’s national motto. Yet Congress concluded that there ought to be limits to church-based political activity. Political mobilization, voter registration, lobbying, and preaching on controversial subjects was fine. Political partisanship, especially the promotion of specific candidates, was not. Mainline leaders were on board with such caution. Even though vigilant denominational lobbyists kept an eye on the legislation, there was little reaction to the amendment at the time, either from politicians or from religious organizations. At a time when denominations did not clearly align with party goals, the desire to keep these groups nonpartisan was widespread.

The prominence of mainline Protestants has dwindled since their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. Their most important institution—the National Council of Churches—has faced funding problems for decades and has recently relocated from its historic home in Manhattan to a cheaper location in Washington, D.C. Yet their move to D.C. was not just a matter of finances: it was also an affirmation of the importance of politics for the National Council. In fact, the current National Council president, James Winkler, was previously the director of the United Methodists’ lobbying group. With a staff of nearly two dozen, Winkler was in charge of “the implementation of the Church’s Social Principles through Capitol Hill advocacy work,” according to the Methodists’ website. Now Winkler works to translate the moral vision of his ecumenical organization into a political force.

Today, segments on both the left and the right insist that they must fulfill their religiously inspired missions in the realm of politics. No simple call for church-state separation is a plausible solution to the challenges that religious political mobilization creates. To ask Protestants to stop getting involved in politics is to ask them to stop fulfilling what they see as a religious injunction. What must be carefully considered, from the perspective of the religious groups who engage in politics and from the perspective of those who are more generally concerned with the relations between religion and government, is if and how this relationship should be regulated.

Gene Zubovich is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. His dissertation, completed in 2014, is titled, “The Global Gospel: Protestant Internationalism and American Liberalism, 1940-1960.”

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After the Midterms, Where Can Congress and Obama Find Consensus? Wed, 12 Nov 2014 16:40:45 +0000 (Getty/Pool)


Abetter-than-expected performance in the recent congressional midterm elections left the Republican Party in control of both houses of Congress. Not only did the GOP capture control of the Senate by ousting a slew of Democratic incumbents, Republicans also added to their majority in the House by at least 13 seats. The result is a very divided government, which has already prompted renewed concerns about gridlock. Will the next two years promise to be an unfortunate sequel to the last two in terms of legislative accomplishment?

Some analysts are expressing cautious—albeit perhaps unwarranted—optimism that the new congressional configuration might actually jump-start the legislative process. Carl Hulse at The New York Times noted that Obama and a GOP Congress might find common ground on trade and energy issues, such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Even newly minted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who once vowed to make Obama a “one-term President,” has promised a productive session. At a recent news conference, he promised to end the “gridlock” and “dysfunction” stifling Washington in recent years.

If our political leaders are serious about identifying areas of common purpose they might consult the public, which both reelected Obama by a significant margin in 2012 and gave him a robust Republican congressional majority to work with two years later. Although recent acrimony among elected leaders might suggest otherwise, there are a number of issues about which the public agrees.

Over the last five years, my colleagues and I at Public Religion Research Institute have found that there is widespread support for increasing the minimum wage to $10-an-hour—a move which consistently garners the approval of roughly 7-in-10 Americans. And although Americans differ sharply by race and class on many economic issues, white college-educated Americans (58 percent) approve of this policy almost as readily as white working-class Americans (66 percent). Meanwhile, black and Hispanic Americans overwhelmingly support a minimum-wage hike.

Any doubts about how the public feels about increasing the minimum wage were answered resoundingly with the passage of ballot initiatives raising state minimum-wage laws in four unlikely places—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. Every state that had minimum wage on the ballot in 2014 saw it succeed, most by fairly wide margins.

Policies that address sick and family leave also engender strong support. Nearly 8-in-10 (78 percent) Americans favor requiring businesses to provide all full-time employees with paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child. Support is similarly robust for a policy that would require companies to provide all full-time employees with paid sick days (81 percent favor). Regardless of where Americans place themselves on the political spectrum, support remains strong for both policies. Fully 70 percent of Republicans favor paid sick days for full-time workers, compared to 82 percent of political independents and 90 percent of Democrats.

Another area of consensus has emerged around eliminating mandatory minimum sentences—policies that dictate the length of a prison sentence based on the crime and that may lead to long prison stays for non-violent offenses. The issue of mandatory minimums has received increased media attention of late after it found an unlikely advocate in Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Paul has already co-sponsored legislation with Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would give judges more discretion to ignore mandatory minimum sentencing requirements in certain cases. But in leading on the issue, neither Paul nor Leahy is advocating a position that would alienate their base supporters. Quite the contrary. Nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) Americans who are part of the Tea Party movement agree that mandatory minimum prison sentences for non-violent offenders should be eliminated. Ninety-one percent of liberals also agree. There are few issues that put liberals and Tea Party members on the same side, but eliminating mandatory minimums is one.

Popular accounts of the current cultural and political landscape consistently portray the public as hopelessly divided. Increasing polarization among our legislators is a reflection of the growing divisions in the public. Certainly, policy differences between Democrats and Republicans are real, and recent work has shown that the ideological rift between them is growing. However, media accounts often exaggerate our differences and inflate the volume of disagreement to gin up interest and boost ratings.

As pollsters, we are at times complicit in promoting this narrative by spending an inordinate amount of time cataloguing America’s many fault lines. Few would argue that this is unimportant. It would be impossible to fully understand the increasing diversity and complexity in the U.S. without highlighting the ways we are distinct and unique from one another. But by focusing unrelentingly on our differences, we sometimes fail to identify the issues that unite us. Certainly, when it comes to governing, the reasons we differ and the issues we disagree over are less important than the areas of consensus that we are able to find. It may not appear dramatic or interesting to political observers, but perhaps no issues better define who we are as people or where we are as a country than the issues about which we all basically agree.

Dan Cox is director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute.

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